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Nationwide Division One, 10/2/01
The perfect choice
By Matt Rowson

Mathematics is not very exciting.

Not to the average Joe anyway. Not even, depressingly enough, in a research laboratory, surprising as this may sound. As such, the challenge of attracting scientists to last week's series of talks and demonstrations illustrating the beauty of Mathematics and Statistics in general and the usefulness of Statisticians in particular was no small one.

We needed a figurehead. An icon, to draw the crowds. A big gun to fire at the end of the week, a closing presentation that would have the laboratory buzzing with excitement. GT was obviously an early suggestion, but strangely not a popular one.

The idea wasn't mine. I don't know whose it was; I wasn't party to the particular conversation where lightning struck. But clearly a stroke of genius. The Right Person for the job. The only person for the job. No dusty lecturer, this fellow, no ash-faced monotone bore. This guy is up there with Luther, a shining light, a God. And before we knew it the deal was done. He was coming. No, really!

So, come Friday, an assortment of Statisticians sat around a canteen table, ruminating. None of the usual banter (yes, Statisticians are capable of banter...if they try hard.). Silence, on this occasion. We were about to meet a shared some cases, a key reason behind our choice of profession. Lost in thought, we were shaken by Peter's chilling question. Clearing his throat, his voice quivered: "What if he's shit?".

This is always a risk when realising a long-held ambition, of course. One of the reasons, no doubt, behind the popularly-held assertion that it's a dangerous thing to live out your fantasies. Take Steve Claridge, for example. Pompey born and bred, and now in charge of his football team. Marvellous for him, a dream, a fantasy. Who amongst us isn't a little bit envious?

Except...suddenly it's not going terribly well. Portsmouth have won once in ten games, only twice in seventeen, and have won once away from home all season. A ridiculous injury list hampers attempts at recovery, and performances have collapsed to a point that provoked the normally steadfast support into booing their side off Fratton Park at half-time on Saturday.

What must Claridge be going through? How do you possibly cope with that situation? More than anything he must want to turn it around, more than professional pride would normally demand, this goes much deeper. But what if he's forced out? One of the pillars of his life would collapse into dust. It doesn't even bear thinking about.

Sympathy can wait, though. If we still entertain designs on automatic promotion, three points on Saturday are a must.

In goal for Pompey will be Aaron Flahavan, undisputed first choice again since Russell Hoult's departure for West Brom. 21-year-old Channel Islander Chris Tardif provides cover.

At the back Scott Hiley, who has played under Alan Ball at three different clubs, has secured a regular-looking berth on the right. Captain Darren Moore is the most obvious physical and inspirational obstacle, whilst former Arsenal trainee Jason Crowe is more comfortable coming forward than defending. An injury to Justin Edinburgh leaves an awkward gap at left-back, recently filled by Nigel Quashie whose influence would be more useful in midfield. Repeated attempts to bring in Huddersfield's Jamie Vincent have come to nothing. Linvoy Primus, nearly a goalscorer at Fratton Park in September, is also out, so the committed but limited Dave Waterman provides the most obvious cover. Adrian Whitbread is back at Pompey having spent a period on loan at Luton, but he appears to have no future at Portsmouth despite his Luton deal falling through.

Midfield is the area in which Portsmouth are most seriously restricted through injury, missing shin-fracture victim Kevin Harper, the industrious Tom Curtis (knee), ex-Luton charmer Ceri Hughes (groin) and youngster Gary O'Neil (foot). Delicate Brazilian Stefani Miglioranzi has consequently enjoyed more starts of late, and Greek Australian Michael Panopoulos, a Hornet trialist in the summer, has secured a regular berth on the right. Shaun Derry does most of the fetching and carrying, as betrayed by his eleven yellow cards to date, whilst on-loan Lee Sharpe came in against Preston and has already added a threat with his delivery from the left. Dane Thomas Thogersen will at least win a place on the bench, whilst the injury situation has prompted the reintroduction of Slovenian Mladen Rudonja, whose staccato impressiveness against us in September has not been reproduced since. Estonian captain Marko Reim is currently on trial from Finnish side Kotka FK, but is not eligible to play.

Up front, Manager Claridge soldiers on alongside the human elbow Lee Bradbury, recipient of a red card in Saturday's game. Lee Mills is still returning from a knee problem, and Rory Allen has yet to appear this season due to a combination of injury and general waywardness, so unconvincing youngster Luke Nightingale is the only cover. Rumours this week linking ex-Fratton favourite John Aloisi with a return to the south coast have been glumly dismissed by Claridge. Aloisi is now being linked with Burnley.

Meanwhile, our hero wasn't shit, of course. How could he be? From the moment he staggered into the lecture theatre, raised his enormous eyebrows in mock surprise at the crowd he had attracted and began illustrating Galileo's genius by swinging a rubber ball around nonchalantly on the end of a length of rope, he was nothing short of splendid. He managed to fit in a well-received dig at the monstrosity that is Anne Robinson, and even found time to sign Dave's dog-eared "Think of a Number" annual.

You were always taking a gamble, Steve. However much we sympathise, we'll be hoping and expecting the nails to be dug deeper on Saturday. The Statisticians at the lab gambled as well. But you won't have Johnny Ball playing centre-forward.