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Snow curtails Premiership schedule


Five things we learned from Saturday's "action" in the Premier League:

1. Looking after the fans. Snow played havoc with this weekend's Premier League program. Four of the six games scheduled for Saturday were called off. By Saturday afternoon, all of the three due to be played Sunday -- Wolves at WBA, Manchester United at Chelsea and Spurs at Blackpool - had also been postponed.

None of the matches were called off because the playing surface was unfit.

"Although the pitches were playable, the streets and stadium surrounds were deemed dangerous to fans traveling,'' said the Premier League website.

There was a time when fans were expected to accept that going to a game could be risky. If the roads were icy, the crowds rowdy and the stadiums rickety, well, the fans had to take much of the responsibility for their own safety.

The result was a series of disasters culminating in the largest ever at a British stadium at Hillsborough in 1989, when 96 died.

Hillsborough changed everything. It was followed by compulsory all-seater stadiums, an emphasis on advance ticket sales (with computerized systems which allow the identification of every seated fan in a stadium), closed-circuit television and even greater police control of how and when games are played. But the biggest change after Hillsborough was one of attitude.

The Heysel disaster four years earlier, had confirmed the idea that the fans were the problem and brought the ill-thought-out solution of caging them. Then Hillsborough -- fans came to be seen as the victims and the police, panicky, careless, even dishonest, as the villains.

That experience may help explains the jumpiness of the police when faced with Saturday's snow. They do not want to be seen to be putting any fans at risk. The BBC soccer blog on Saturday complained that it had been deluged with messages suggesting that travel to Stamford Bridge should not be a problem for United fans because all of them live in London anyway. Yet, one change over the last 30 years is that more and more fans drive to games. And the dangers of driving in the snow are an abiding preoccupation of the British police. Canceling soccer games is a good way to stop thousands of fans taking that risk.

2. Who gained and who lost? Perhaps the biggest loser on the snow-blighted weekend was Manchester United. The cancellation of its match means it has two games to make up. This might also have been a good time to play Chelsea, which has gone five league games without a victory.

The biggest winner, among the title contenders, could prove to be the other Manchester club, City. So far, its home game with Everton on Monday is still on. If that match survives the freezing temperatures forecast for Manchester, City will be the only top-five club to play. If City wins, it will jump to the top of the standings, a big psychological breakthrough for a club eager to prove it belongs among the elite.

3. The best of the rest. The Premier League table is usually shown with two lines: one under the fourth-place team, dividing the Champions League places from the rest; and another under fifth, showing the one automatic Europa League qualifier. The top four are the big boys. The fifth place team wins a nice consolation prize. The rest don't matter. For more than a decade, the top four have been a pretty much unchanging quartet. Those sniffing round the also-ran prizes have been a pretty fixed group of suspects too.

This season, the title race has a slightly different look. So does the chasing pack. The big game Saturday ended up being between two teams who could have hopped up to fifth with a victory. Under Owen Coyle, Bolton has been overachieving in a pleasing style.

Sunderland, a much better supported team, clearly has greater potential. It won 1-0 and hopped past Bolton. One more goal and it would have passed Spurs and crossed the line into fifth.

Like Coyle, Bruce, is building a team that plays attractive soccer. Craig Gordon, the high-priced goalie, is finding his form and made a spectacular one-handed save from Zat Knight. John Mensah, on loan from Lyon, and Asamoah Gyan, two Ghanaians, look like astute signings. The team has several youngsters playing important roles: Danny Welbeck, Lee Cattermole and Jordan Henderson. It could well stay close to those lines all season.

4. Danny come home. When Sir Alex Ferguson loans young players who have been hovering on the edge of the United first team to other Premier League clubs, they rarely return. Instead, they often end up at Sunderland.

Sunderland bought Kieran Richardson after the left-winger spent a period on loan at West Brom. In 2009, Bruce, the former United captain, bought Fraizer Campbell after the striker spent a season at Spurs.

Last summer, Bruce short-circuited the process by taking Welbeck, a striker who has since turned 20, to Sunderland on loan from United. Yet with every game Welbeck plays, it looks less likely that he will also end up as a full-time Sunderland player.

On Saturday, Welbeck settled the game. In the 32nd minute, he dived to head in a rebound. It was his fourth league goal of the season.

Those goals, and Welbeck's impressive overall play, could well provoke second thoughts back at Old Trafford.

5. No one lost, but no one won. When club owners fire a manager, the response of other managers, fans and the media is usually to side with the manager. When Sam Allardyce left Blackburn last week the storm of indignation was particularly intense.

Allardyce is a bluff, talkative, Englishman who keeps the media well supplied with inflammatory quotes.

The Blackburn owners are new. They are foreign. They are in the poultry business. They put a woman, Anuradha Desai, in charge. She said that she knew nothing about soccer. Then the club fired Big Sam. Cue the inevitable outraged reaction in some quarters.

Yet, Allardyce is not a manager who will win an ambitious club new fans. He will keep the ones a club has by ensuring it is not relegated. And the blossoming of one of Allardyce's former club's, Bolton, under Coyle, has only served to make Big Sam look more like a tactical dinosaur.

West Ham at home would have been exactly the first fixture Steve Kean, the caretaker manager, might have picked. Blackburn can play passing soccer, but its goal came straight from the Big Sam playbook. Following a corner, one center back, Chris Samba, shoved a West Ham defender out of the way and another, Ryan Nelsen kneed the ball over the line. David Dunn later headed the ball into the goal from a corner. That strike was overruled because this time the push, by Nelsen, had caught the referee's eye.

West Ham were both inept and unlucky, but Blackburn allowed the Hammers to dominate possession. The equalizing goal, by Junior Stanislas, was no more than both teams deserved. The draw kept Blackburn in the midtable dead zone that is Big Sam's kingdom. West Ham stayed anchored in last place. A point is nice, but West Ham has already drawn eight times this season. It needs to start adding to its two victories.

The danger for Blackburn of breaking free of Big Sam is that by aiming higher, it could end up slipping lower.