Dark year for men who drew a Blanc

 

For every Zinedine Zidane there's a Laurent Blanc; for every Carl Llewellyn there's a Tom Jenks; for every Mark O'Meara there's a Chip Beck and for every Herman Maier there's a Brian Stemmle. So, while you're toasting the year's great sporting achievers spare a thought for the victims of this collection of 1998 hard luck stories.

Laurent Blanc: Until he had the misfortune to brush with Croatia's Slaven Bilic, 15 minutes from the end of the World Cup semi-final, French defender Laurent Blanc had never been sent off in the course of his 15-year professional career. Pushing his hand in to Bilic's neck probably merited a yellow card, but Bilic responded by falling to the ground, holding his forehead as if it had been hit with a sledgehammer. Blanc was sent off and missed out on playing in the World Cup final. Now 33 he's unlikely ever to get the chance again. Mercifully Bilic is paying dearly for his crime - he's still a member of the Everton back four. Serves him right too, rat. Chip Beck: "On Tour, Beck is known as `Mr Positive', for his seemingly unquashable optimism," begins the PGA biography of the American golfer. His positive outlook on life must, however, have been very sorely tested in 1998 - he didn't make the cut in a PGA tournament until September. In all he played in 27 tournaments and missed the cut in 25 (including 19 in a row). Optimism quashed, we presume.

Geoff Boycott: A shocking year for the man who did for cricket what Cliff Thorburn did for snooker (Zzzzzz). Not only was he convicted of beating up his former girlfriend, lost most of his media work and learnt that he had even fewer friends than he thought he had he discovered, to his horror, that they speak French in French courts. Geoffrey may never recover. But he'll bat on. And on. And on. And on. And . . .

Tom Jenks: "Do you mean nocturnal winners or ones on the racecourse?" Jenks once famously replied when asked how many winners he'd ridden in the season. Yes, Tom's a bit of a lad - a lad who has a shark tattooed on his bottom and who owns a speedboat called Twinkle.

But there was no twinkle in his eye in April when his long-time partner Earth Summit was ridden to English Grand National success by Carl Llewellyn, who replaced Jenks after he broke his leg in a fall just a couple of weeks before the big race. While Llewellyn celebrated, Jenks, a frustrated spectator, was busy trying to dig his crutches out of the quagmire that Aintree had become on that rainy day. Let's hope Earth Summit's saddle can carry his shark-tattooed bottom first over the finishing line in the 1999 Grand National, just to make up for his 1998 disappointment.

Glenn Hoddle: About the only thing Hoddle got right in 1998 was his decision to drop Gazza from the England squad for the World Cup, an action that made him as popular in England as Kenneth Starr is in the Clinton household. After that Glenn didn't get much right, insisting that Michael Owen wasn't a natural born goalscorer and comparing Eileen Drewery to Jesus. His chances of still being England manager this time next year are, you'd imagine, as promising as Monica Lewinsky's hopes of getting another job in the White House. Brian Stemmle: The "He's Gonna Do It, He's Gonna Do It, He's . . . not" award for 1998 goes to the veteran Canadian skier. Before February's Winter Olympics downhill race Stemmle had finished no higher than 14th in a major event so he was regarded as a bit of a no-hoper in Nagano, where he was one of the last to go in the race.

But, two thirds the way down he was, astonishingly, half a second faster than the leader Jean-Luc Cretier and Olympic gold and an entire chapter in the book of "Magical Fairytale Olympic Moments" beckoned. All he had to do was stay on his feet. But he didn't. He ran in to some slushy snow, not too far from the finishing line, landed on his bottom and it was all over. Sigh, what might have been, and all that . . .

Andrea Gaudenzi: Just when tennis seemed dead and buried as a spectator sport the Italian restored our faith in the game with a stupendous performance in the exhilarating opening match of the Davis Cup Final against Sweden's Magnus Norman in December. Competing for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder two months before Gaudenzi fought back from a 0-4 deficit in a magnificent final set to lead 6-5 - but then, after four hours 53 minutes on court, he tore a tendon in his shoulder and was forced to retire from the match, with the score at 6-6 in the final set. Magnus said "phew", Andrea said "drat" while those watching on telly bawled their eyes out at the injustice of it all.

Naseem Hamed: It says something of this man's `popularity' that he briefly turned Chris Eubank in to the `world's most loved sportsman' when he (Eubank) smacked the obnoxious little runt when they had an altercation at Heathrow Airport last year. Granted, Hamed finished 1998 as world champion but America, which he is so desperate to crack, yawned and the rest of us just felt nauseous at his antics before the Wayne McCullough fight last month. On top of that his treatment of Brendan Ingle, who took him off the streets of Sheffield and sent him on his way to boxing success, was appalling. Wishing you no luck in 1999, Naz. Footballers' Wives: English managers blamed them for everything in 1998: Global warming, Dublin's traffic problems, house prices, Celine Dion records. Worse still they were accused of discussing prospective transfers with their husbands, the hussies. Take Robert Jarni's wife. When Coventry City tried to sign him she persuaded him to join Real Madrid instead, much to the fury of the glamorous Midlands club's chairman. (Mmm, and they say women know nothing about football). To all of the above, take Homer Simpson's advice: "Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably - the lesson is, never try." Here's to a better 1999 for ye all (except Naseem Hamed).