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2009.10.11 | 2009.06.21 | 2009.03.22 | 2009.03.08 | 2009.02.15 | 2009.02.01

Monday, October 12, 2009

On the Net


Observer October 11th

Yesterday something happened that, so people say,  means nothing will ever be the same again. England played on the world wide web and the world moved on. 

Which, of course, is massively exciting for internetty people. But, to be honest, a bit of a headache for the majority of us. There is the off chance it might be a wonderful development. Pubs might be able to plug their computers into their television (a weird piece of cross-breeding if ever I heard one) and, in time, subvert the punitive subscriptions levied by Sky and bring the Evil Empire crashing down. But it probably won't.

There is a slim chance that, liberated from being overseen by the dead hands of the BBC, ITV and Sky sports departments, the coverage might be original, fun and, God forbid, literate. But it is more likely they will mimic their competitors in a bid to convince the punters they are sufficiently serious to be allowed to broadcast meaningless international football. The punters, being human, would prefer a laugh, but once they have filled in their direct debits that is by the by.

It is probable we will have more of the same on a smaller screen. A technological development designed to simultaneously gives us a headache and make us less social, or, if the only way you can watch a game together is by sitting on someone's lap, arguably over-social.

But it is pointless to complain because the people who understand things are imbued with the cold certainty of atheists. Michael Lewis called the book that accompanied his new website 'The Future Just Happened', which carries the implication that it is already done and dusted. Roy Greenslade has pronounced what you are holding in your hands dead on arrival so often that do not be surprised if it crumbles into ashes. Jeff Jarvis, bloggers' blogger, believer that the 'internet is a right', and the 'googliest' man on the planet is dumbstruck, almost to the point of bloggers' block (does this exist?) by any resistance to change. Although not half as startled as I was by his column which opened 'when I got the news [prostate cancer], my reflex was to blog about it.' Now if I got this news I would start kicking furniture and generally rage around a bit, before collapsing in a sea of self-pity. Which happens to be a fair description of most blogging, without the bother of having to open the lap-top.

Something, these days, I tend to avoid. There is already way way too much coming through my computer. I shirk from the cruel mix of creditors' demands and editorial rejections it delivers on an 'updated under a minute ago' basis. And now football will be coming through the computer screen. And where football leads all other sport follows. And soon in order to watch sport we will be locked to our computer screens, staring and silent. And the whole thing fills me with such dread that there is no option but to hide away and re-read Roger Lewis's magnificent and uplifting Seasonal Suicide Notes.

3:37 pm gmt 

1970 ITV World Cup Panel

The Forgotten Story of...

The Sports Broadcasting Revolution (and Idwal Robling)

There has been much twittering about the decision to broadcast tomorrow's England's qualifier only on the world wide web and the pundits are divided as to whether this is the end of the world or the start of a new world or, for the fence-sitters, both. It as nothing, however, compared to the innovations that preceded the broadcasting of the  1970 World Cup. The privilege of filming England's attempt to retain the World Cup  was a once in every other lifetime opportunity for the cream of British sports broadcasters who responded by developing a collection of formats so potent that they would come to dominate 21st Century television.

The first hero of this story is John 'Brommers' Bromley. It was he who, in 1963, conceived for ITV the programme Wide World of Sport which opened with a packed schedule containing swimming from the lido in Porthcawl, wrestling from Leytonstone and snooker from the National Liberal Club in London. As the contents remained largely unchanged and Brommers came under increasing pressure from various Trades Description bodies he dropped the 'Wide', plucked Dickie Davies from Cunard Liner obscurity, and World of Sport was born.

A fine starter but as nothing compared to his next act for it was Brommers who dreamt up the idea of the football panel. Influenced no doubt by the football pools panel he envisaged a brave new world in which the pundits might be encouraged to say something more penetrating than 'that'll be home win, Stanley'. From this little acorn...

Brommers could not have picked a better time to plant it. Back in the sixties, according to Brian Moore, 'Football criticism on television had been fairly mealy-mouthed up until 1970, you know, it was important you said the right thing. And then we came to the 1970 World Cup, and Jimmy [Hill] was a party to it, who decided we would have a panel with a difference. We wanted one or two extroverts.'

What a selection meeting it must have been and it was only after a plethora of black balls that the following quartet was selected to be the panel: Malcolm Allison, Derek Dougan, Pat Crerand and Bob McNab. Talk about chemistry! And who cannot see the influence this panel has had upon Simon Cowell. Squint a little when you watch X Factor tomorrow night and you will see Allison (Cowell), Dougan (Walsh), Crerand (at a stretch, Cole) and McNab (Minogue). Indeed, during the emotional speeches at his 50th birthday party Cowell admitted as much when he told 2,000 of his very closest friends, 'I owe it all to Big Mal'. And promptly burst into tears.

It was Allison who was the star of the show. Chugging on a cigar (those were the days when television was television) he would expand on the world of football: 'Why are we technically better in Europe? Because we play against peasants, teams who play in primitive ways!' Meanwhile, Dougan and Crerand contributed the impenetrable accents and McNab/Minogue was so quiet that he/she was issued with a bell which he/she had to ring every time he/she wanted to say something.

All this was novel and exciting but it was Brommers who changed television forever when he decided to lock the panel up for a month in the Hendon Hall hotel, gave them the keys to the mini-bar and insisted they were woken every morning with a bottle of vintage champagne. It is a very short step from this to Big Brother. All it requires is replacing the panellists with members of the public and Jimmy Hill with the woman wonderfully described by Roger Lewis as 'full-of-beans ex-drug addict Davina' and hey presto you've wrecked a television channel for a decade. (n.b I attempted, rather haphazardly admittedly, to contact Peter Bazalgette for confirmation of this theory but at time of writing he has not returned my calls!)

So there you have it, commercial television's two mainstays of this millennium both originated from the ITV 1970 World Cup panel. Little wonder, therefore, that, for the first and only time in its history, ITV achieved higher ratings for a World Cup turnament than the BBC.

Not that the Corporation were entirely quiescent. How could they be with the second hero David Coleman on the team. He was a man, described by Frank Bough, 'who had made his considerable reputation from being able not only to take talkback in his ear, change his mind in a trice, get his facts right, and most of all, sight-read the football results on the teleprinter, but also to interpret and amplify them in the most amazing way. Coleman was the only one who could tell you that the win had put Arsenal on top of division one on goal average [in ital, my ital] or that was East Fife's first score draw in nineteen consecutive games. He still is. Nobody does the teleprinter (or the videprinter as now is) [Bough's bracket] like him.'

In short, he was Jeff Stelling when Jeff Stelling was in nappies. He was also an ideas man. And it was Coleman who decided that the coveted 'third commentator' spot behind DC himself  and Wolstenholme should be determined by the results of an open 'mike' competition on Sportsnight. (So far, so Britain's Got Talent). 10,000 people entered (even more Britain's Got Talent) and the final six invited to Wembley to commentate on England v Wales were:
a)  Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart. (later to helm Junior Choice)
b) Ian St John (later to be  one half of celebrated double act Saint and Greavesy)
c) Gerry Harrison (later to become Anglia's Mr Football)
d) Larry Canning (later to become the Midlands Mr Football)
e) Tony Adamson (later to become a really quite irritating tennis broadcaster).
f) Idwal Robling (a sales manager for a packaging company)

WHAT a final half-dozen (Way beyond the dreams of Britain's Got Talent). It is fair to say that the judging panel, which contained Sir Alf Ramsey and Tony Book, had their work cut trying to separate such a talented sextet when awarding them marks in categories as diverse as team identification, use of allegory, and perceived bias. In the event it came down to a mike off between St John and Robling and Sir Alf Ramsey, renowned for his fondness for the Welsh accent, plumped for Idwal. The Saint, meanwhile, was given a consolatory job as a pundit which, as is so often the case, proved to be no consolation. 

Plus ca change.

(Sources
Frank Bough: Cue Frank!
Steve Williams at offthetelly.co.uk)

3:36 pm gmt 

The New Tories and Sport


Observer October 4th


Usually it is the Conservative Party conference which is profoundly depressing (And to be the fair to the bastards I am sure they won't disappoint this week as they prepare for power by taking it in turns to smug up to the lectern and denounce as demented anyone who has the temerity to call for a small windfall levy on those whose properties have risen from £300,000 to an easy million and in the process earned their owners tax free as much as a teacher or nurse might make in a career) But even so it will struggle to be more deflationary than Labour's effort in Brighton which, with Peter 'Suits You Sir' Mandelson as camp impresario, was an end of the pier show to end end of the pier shows.

The polls and the odds don't lie: The Tories are back and this time they're Etonians. The only question to be resolved is which sport they will choose to adopt. For the last decade there was a symmetry between New Labour and New Football as both attempted to combine traditionalist supporters loyal to their roots with swing voters attracted to the glitz. It was pork pies and prawn sandwiches. Little wonder it sometimes felt queasy.

Now it is the Tories' turn. Cameron and Osborne can hardly do football. The leader-in-waiting's support for Aston Villa is as convincing as Prince William's (who is a fellow alumnus which means that should the Queen and Prince Charles simultaneously fall under a bus The King, Prime Minister and Mayor of London would all be Old Etonians). As for Osborne the nearest one can envisage him to a football match is skulking tickets for it outside the stadium.

Nor can the political Ant and Dec really do rugby or cricket. The former because it sends out the wrong message, the latter because it is very hard to wing a love of cricket (those that don't know cricket, will not cricket know). Moving down the list, there's motor racing but that brings Bernie Ecclestone into the equation and, God forbid, maybe Jeremy Clarkson into the cabinet as Car Czar. Then there's tennis but cuddling up to Andy Murray doesn't immediately appeal as a vote winner. And after that there's horse-racing. This, I think, would be quite clever. There would be something refreshing about an incoming Prime Minister ending his induction speech with a 'keep it under your hat, but I don't half fancy Alfred Nobel for Saturday's Guineas'. However, being a pair of spivs the last thing Osborne and Cameron will want to be seen as is at all spivvy. Which leaves swimming...

Or, I'm afraid, the inevitable football. And if England win the World Cup next year (which they won't because one player, almost certainly at the quarter-final stage, will do something stupid and the rest of his team-mates will not possess the collective wit to stage a recovery) the first man to the microphone will be Dave hailing 'Johnny Terry and his boys for proving Britain can be Great with the right manager and the right Prime Minister...'

That'll take the sheen off of the Jules Rimet trophy.

3:35 pm gmt 

Hypnotic Football



Hypnotic football to go


The forgotten story...

...of Hypnosis in Football.


Most astute mind-readers of the game would agree that Derren Brown has had a disappointing season so far. He may redeem himself by bankrupting a casino this evening and redistributing the monies among cash poor Pompey footballers but the signs are not promising. He opened with the programme in which he gulled people into thinking he had predicted the lottery, with a whole load of guff about the wisdom of crowds, when all he had achieved was announcing the results after the event. This left  his disciples looking very stupid indeed and DB not looking particular clever. On his next two outings he pulled off a couple of hypnotic tricks from the Paul McKenna bottom drawer. Now he needs something special. To use the argot of football he needs to raise his game. And how better to finish with a flourish than by hypnotising a  football team. After all, it has been done before, exactly fifty years ago...

It is fair to say that Hinckley Athletic have enjoyed a chequered history. They were formed in 1889 after the Church Institute threw out some of their more talented players for skipping bible classes and the disgruntled truants met in the Holy Well Inn
and over a few pints of mead decided 'sod it, we'll set up our own side and call ourselves Athletic'. The wisdom of this decision was shown as they left the pub to beat Croft Rising Star (Belgrade) 6-0 away and Earl (Peter) Shilton 4-0. All went well  until they visited Leicester (Bob) Fosse and the home side “scored” a goal which the Athletic players claimed was offside. The Fosse demanded it count and the ex-truants departed the stadium early to chants of 'Go Home Tin Hats' and 'Pump Borough'.
The insults only served to inspire them to greater things and a decade later they pulled off the fabled triple crown – Leicestershire Senior League, the Senior Cup and the Hinckley Cup – and overwhelmed large neighbours Coventry City 7-2.

Fast forward 49 years, however, and they find themselves in the doldrums and, assuming there is a right end, at the wrong end of the Brimingham Combination (From now on I lean heavily on Andrew Ward's Football Strangest Matches).  Seeking to ginger things up the directors placed an ad in the Hinckley Times alerting the local populace to the fact that on Tuesday 12th April RICHARD PAYNE WILL CONDUCT AN AMAZING EXPERIMENT WITH THE HINCKLEY ATHLETIC TEAM. DON'T MISS IT.

Payne was the Derren-Brown-and-Paul-McKenna-rolled-into-one of his day. (To see him in his pomp go to  HYPERLINK "http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=47986"http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=47986.
Pretty damned impressive I think you'll agree, and I wonder if Brown is not missing a trick by being the only man in the room dressed in white tie and tails. Look out also for the Pathe announcer's 'Don't try this at home unless My Payne's handy.')

Anyway you can see why the directors of Hinckley thought that Payne, described by Pathe as the man who can make you believe absolutely anything, might be just the ticket for convincing the Athletic players that they had a chance against table-topping neighbours Bedworth Town.

The Working Men's Club was jumping as three hundred packed in to see Payne put half the team to sleep ('like the defence has been all season' quipped an East Midlands wag) and tell them 'You Will Win', 'You Will Win'. It seemed to have an immediate effect with the left-half, who had struggled to get on the scoresheet all year, dribbling a convenient bowler hat past dozens of members of the audience before, with some finesse, flicking it up to hang on a dart sticking out from the treble twenty on the board in the corner. This may have been the most impressive feat of the evening but all the team acquitted themselves better in the Club than they had on the park (the goalie's chicken impersonation was a hoot) and there was genuine optimism and talk of corners having been turned.

And so to the day of the match, Easter Tuesday, and the Athletic players sit in the dressing room, as if in Gethsemane, awaiting their Saviour. Sadly, it was a no show from Payne. The Athletic went out to play unhypnotised and got gubbed 2-1.

This is clearly disappointing for fans of hypnotism and the beautiful game but, given Payne's absence, by no means the end of the matter.

I take it we can all agree that the Ant and Dec charity games have long passed their sell out date. There is a recession on and no one is interested any more in chefs and celebs playing crap football. It is time for Gordon & Co to go back to the kitchen.

However, no point jettisoning anything unless you have a replacement to hand, so I give you a Derren Brown Invitation XI against a Paul McKenna Invitation XI. It would be fob watches at ten paces and I, for one, would fucking love it.

Particualrly as, unlike the Ant and Dec efforts, there would be an element of grudge to proceedings. Brown has been dismissive of McKenna and is no fan of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) which offers punters happier, thinner, wealthier, smoke free lives all for the price of £199.99 plus VAT. I would hope, therefore, that he would hypnotise a couple of his more pliant invitees into playing the role of hatchet man. A pair of celebs thinking they were Giles and Bremner and introducing themselves to a couple of clients of McKenna's (say Robbie Williams and the Duchess of York) twittering 'I am not fat, I only think I am fat' would be entertaining. As would two celebs both believing they were Didier Drogba going full pelt at a defence with, two more McKenna clients, Tara Palmer Tomkinson and Geri Haliwell at its heart.

Finally, the topper: the managers would only have themselves to blame should anything go wrong on the park. There can be no 'the lads let me down and they let themselves down' excuses if you have programmed them. It would be as absurd as blaming the avatars for a poor performance on F.I.F.A 2010. Brown and McKenna, auteurs the pair of them, will be entirely responsible for their players' actions. And to spice things up perhaps Brown can put up the money he has rooked from the casino and McKenna some of the fees he has received from happier, thinner, wealthier smoke-free punters.

Let the hypnotised games begin....



3:34 pm gmt 

Hyp Hypnotic football to go The forgotten story... ...of Hypnosis in Football. Most astute mind-readers of the game would agree that Derren Brown has had a disappointing season so far. He may redeem himself by bankrupting a casino this evening and redistributing the monies among cash poor Pompey footballers but the signs are not promising. He opened with the programme in which he gulled people into thinking he had predicted the lottery, with a whole load of guff about the wisdom of crowds, when all he had achieved was announcing the results after the event. This left his disciples looking very stupid indeed and DB not looking particular clever. On his next two outings he pulled off a couple of hypnotic tricks from the Paul McKenna bottom drawer. Now he needs something special. To use the argot of football he needs to raise his game. And how better to finish with a flourish than by hypnotising a football team. After all, it has been done before, exactly fifty years ago... It is fair to say that Hinckley Athletic have enjoyed a chequered history. They were formed in 1889 after the Church Institute threw out some of their more talented players for skipping bible classes and the disgruntled truants met in the Holy Well Inn and over a few pints of mead decided 'sod it, we'll set up our own side and call ourselves Athletic'. The wisdom of this decision was shown as they left the pub to beat Croft Rising Star (Belgrade) 6-0 away and Earl (Peter) Shilton 4-0. All went well until they visited Leicester (Bob) Fosse and the home side “scored” a goal which the Athletic players claimed was offside. The Fosse demanded it count and the ex-truants departed the stadium early to chants of 'Go Home Tin Hats' and 'Pump Borough'. The insults only served to inspire them to greater things and a decade later they pulled off the fabled triple crown – Leicestershire Senior League, the Senior Cup and the Hinckley Cup – and overwhelmed large neighbours Coventry City 7-2. Fast forward 49 years, however, and they find themselves in the doldrums and, assuming there is a right end, at the wrong end of the Brimingham Combination (From now on I lean heavily on Andrew Ward's Football Strangest Matches). Seeking to ginger things up the directors placed an ad in the Hinckley Times alerting the local populace to the fact that on Tuesday 12th April RICHARD PAYNE WILL CONDUCT AN AMAZING EXPERIMENT WITH THE HINCKLEY ATHLETIC TEAM. DON'T MISS IT. Payne was the Derren-Brown-and-Paul-McKenna-rolled-into-one of his day. (To see him in his pomp go to HYPERLINK "http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=47986"http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=47986. Pretty damned impressive I think you'll agree, and I wonder if Brown is not missing a trick by being the only man in the room dressed in white tie and tails. Look out also for the Pathe announcer's 'Don't try this at home unless My Payne's handy.') Anyway you can see why the directors of Hinckley thought that Payne, described by Pathe as the man who can make you believe absolutely anything, might be just the ticket for convincing the Athletic players that they had a chance against table-topping neighbours Bedworth Town. The Working Men's Club was jumping as three hundred packed in to see Payne put half the team to sleep ('like the defence has been all season' quipped an East Midlands wag) and tell them 'You Will Win', 'You Will Win'. It seemed to have an immediate effect with the left-half, who had struggled to get on the scoresheet all year, dribbling a convenient bowler hat past dozens of members of the audience before, with some finesse, flicking it up to hang on a dart sticking out from the treble twenty on the board in the corner. This may have been the most impressive feat of the evening but all the team acquitted themselves better in the Club than they had on the park (the goalie's chicken impersonation was a hoot) and there was genuine optimism and talk of corners having been turned. And so to the day of the match, Easter Tuesday, and the Athletic players sit in the dressing room, as if in Gethsemane, awaiting their Saviour. Sadly, it was a no show from Payne. The Athletic went out to play unhypnotised and got gubbed 2-1. This is clearly disappointing for fans of hypnotism and the beautiful game but, given Payne's absence, by no means the end of the matter. I take it we can all agree that the Ant and Dec charity games have long passed their sell out date. There is a recession on and no one is interested any more in chefs and celebs playing crap football. It is time for Gordon & Co to go back to the kitchen. However, no point jettisoning anything unless you have a replacement to hand, so I give you a Derren Brown Invitation XI against a Paul McKenna Invitation XI. It would be fob watches at ten paces and I, for one, would fucking love it. Particualrly as, unlike the Ant and Dec efforts, there would be an element of grudge to proceedings. Brown has been dismissive of McKenna and is no fan of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) which offers punters happier, thinner, wealthier, smoke free lives all for the price of £199.99 plus VAT. I would hope, therefore, that he would hypnotise a couple of his more pliant invitees into playing the role of hatchet man. A pair of celebs thinking they were Giles and Bremner and introducing themselves to a couple of clients of McKenna's (say Robbie Williams and the Duchess of York) twittering 'I am not fat, I only think I am fat' would be entertaining. As would two celebs both believing they were Didier Drogba going full pelt at a defence with, two more McKenna clients, Tara Palmer Tomkinson and Geri Haliwell at its heart. Finally, the topper: the managers would only have themselves to blame should anything go wrong on the park. There can be no 'the lads let me down and they let themselves down' excuses if you have programmed them. It would be as absurd as blaming the avatars for a poor performance on F.I.F.A 2010. Brown and McKenna, auteurs the pair of them, will be entirely responsible for their players' actions. And to spice things up perhaps Brown can put up the mone
3:34 pm gmt 

The Forgotten Tournament

The Observer September 27

Is the Champions Trophy actually taking place?

I ask because the press coverage, such as it is, has been decidedly sketchy. There have been reports filed about sexy dossiers containing references to 'going solo', a euphemism which with its hint of intrepid boldness suggests that masturbation is the more heroic option, but precious little talk about cricket.

This is a shame because I intended to build my fortnight around the 'League Cup' of international cricket competitions. In part, because I have fond memories of the West Indies winning the trophy against England in the gloaming at the Oval with an improbable comeback to give Brian Lara, near the very end, something to celebrate. In part, because I have time upon my hands and there is nothing that fills a day as satisfyingly as the cricket.

There are passages in many men's lives when the question they most fear is 'so, what do you do?'. During the boom years I could brush this off with an 'I'm an ideas man', but this is considered too flouncy for a recession in which ideas are anathema and nuts and bolts men are kings. I have tried 'House husband' but people laugh at my pretensions to domesticity. 'Home worker' sounds as if you've missed out a 'care'.   'I'm home based', unless you pronounce the last consonant very strongly, suggests you have turned yourself into a D.I.Y superstore. 'Self-employed' no one believes any more. And the age when you could get away with 'I'm just looking' has long passed.

All is not lost, however, thanks to predictions of global warming leading to the destruction of the planet. This has allowed house bound men of a certain age to be able to claim that far from being 'freelance' they are, in fact, 'House greens'. This job description, a clever inversion of the comforting word greenhouse, automatically qualifies one as a hero of our times. What could be more worthy than haring around turning off lights and unplugging electric appliances at source. Reduce your carbon footprint to a child's size one and you will be a jolly green giant among your fellow men.

So highly regarded that the technically very un House green decision to leave Sky Sports One on, or on standby, for a fortnight will be overlooked. You can, therefore, watch the entirety of the Champions Trophy without the slightest guilt. But nor with utter certainty that you are seeing what you think you are seeing. As the lines between reality and fantasy become blurred it seems increasingly certain that someone will fake an entire sports tournament (an act of cheating which, frankly, will put Nelson Picquet Jnr. firmly in the back seat, as it were). There are those that believe the Moon Landings were filmed in the deserts of Nevada and that Gulf War I was shot on set in Hollywood. If they can spoof such big budget spectaculars an ICC event would be well within their compass. You have been warned.




3:33 pm gmt 

The Son of Scholesy...


Observer Column Sept 20th

Calvinist Presbyterian mythology, which claims to be something other than mythology, decrees all was created by God, the one God, within six days...Fair enough, we all know the lad's got a great engine on him, has a 100% work rate, is a Celestial Scholesy.

Jonathan Meades (Wed, BBC4)

Once again Meades, by many furlongs the most erudite broadcaster of the age (and therefore consigned to BBC4 for eternity), might have hit upon something. If football is a religion, which I dispute with an Dawkinsian zeal but many fools seem to believe, then it requires some form of Messiah. And this being so how much more credible that the Saviour be not the incumbent Newcastle manager but the Salford born midfielder.

The case for Paul Aaron Scholes (aka Scholesy) being the Son of God is compelling:

First, he is an Englishman.

Second, he is a one club man. Messiahs do not have agents. Messiahs do not chop and change clubs in search of an extra five large a week. Messiahs remain loyal to their club even as that club transforms itself into global conglomerate more concerned with shifting replica shirts in the East than preaching the beautiful game in the West. It is relatively easy to be a Messiah at, say, Woking, less so at the Theatre of Dreams. This is a dressing-room filled not with credulous youths and last chance pros but...
a) Wayne Rooney - slated to write five volumes of ghosted autobiography, one more than  Christ himself who crammed all his, arguably more impressive, achievements into just the four gospels.
b) Rio Ferdinand - the most notorious party organiser currently plying his trade in the Premiership. To deny one of his invitations, as the Celestial Scholesy has done once a year every year, is to stand up to Satan.
c) The Neville brothers - born and bred to test the patience of a Saint.
    i)   
Third, the agony...
Scholesy is an asthmatic. He is the first and last Englishman to have been sent off at the old Wembley stadium. He has been played out of position at international level by Sven Goran Eriksson. He has known pain.

Fourth, the ecstasy...
Few would wish to argue with Scholes's medal haul of 9 Premierships, 4 Community Shields, 3 FA Cups, 2 Champions Leagues, 1 League Cup, an Intercontinental Cup and a FIFA Club World Cup.

Fifth, his dynastic ambitions. A New Testament Messiah would be above striving for the son of the son of God. But Scholesy - with his temper, his thirst for vengeance, his association with Roy Keane – has always fitted more easily into the Old Testament, a book primarily concerned with begatting. Good to see then that Scholesy and his wife, the delightful Claire, have started so promisingly by knocking out Arron, Alicia and Aiden. That's a hat-trick every bit as impressive as the one he scored against Poland and they still have twenty-five letters to go!

Sixth, a revealing interview the Celestial Scholesy gave to the Daily Mirror in which  he predicted, 'I think I've got two years left at the most [...] I'm looking forward to finishing and everything that goes with it.' This, to many scholars, indicates that the old-fashioned inside forward is aware of the fate that awaits him. The fact he is 'looking forward to finishing' (in a dying rather than goalscoring sense of the word) demonstrating that he is only too aware  Our Saviour's final words on the cross were 'it is finished' (also in a dying rather than goalscoring sense of the word).

3:32 pm gmt 

Scorcher and Score

The Forgotten Story of...

Scorcher and Score.


As it is comics week in the Guardian and Observer it is right and proper that we should remember the greatest of all the early seventies football mags. This was not the asset-stripping monolith that was Tiger, nor the ageless, if increasingly silly, Roy of the Rovers, but the short-lived Scorcher and Score.

Scorcher magazine came into the world to herald a new dawn and a new decade in January 1970. Within a year and a half it had been joined at the hip with Score magazine (the 'football themed comic' rather than the pornographic magazine publisher of, among others, Leg Sex and New Cummers) to form the world's leading football comic. It reigned for two and a half years. Then Tiger, probably initially as defensive measure, bought them up and slowly it moved from being called TIGER and Scorcher to TIGER and Scorcher to TIGER and Scorcher to TIGER and Scorcher to....

Such is the fate of many great publishing projects. No matter, while it was still visible to the human eye it provided a host of wonderful stories. There was, of course, Billy's Boots which over the years comprehensively depicted every conceivable way in which a young boy could lose his football boots. There was Bobby of the Blues which detailed the exploits of Bobby Booth, legendary striker for Everpool (so much better than Liverton or, indeed, Arsesea). There was Nipper (absorbed from Score) about a young man's search for justice and the brutal realities of reserve team football. And, ridiculously, there was Hot Shot Hamish and his pet sheep McMutton, which need not detain us.

There was also - and Wikipedia, not for the first time giving us the trees not the wood, misses this – Jimmy of  City and Jack of United. These two strips book-ended the comic (Jack at the front, Jimmy at the back, if memory serves) and were, in a word, quality.

Their story starts conventionally with the brothers (basically the Charlton brothers with hair) going for a trial with Castleburn United...
 'When the game began Jack's lean hard-muscled figure soon caught the eye of United's Manager Eric Mills' reads the caption. 'I like the look of No 6. Solid, reliable, knows what he's doing,' reads the speech bubble, 'Better and better, he's got the “United” touch.'
Manager Mills is not so taken with Jimmy ('the real footballer' in the family according to Jack) who he regards as 'certainly an eager beaver, a glutton for work..but too much of a lone wolf'. Jack is offered a contract, Jimmy is not. Disaster.

Actually, no. Having been substituted at half-time, Jimmy trudges home past a game of park football. One team are down to eight men. They debate whether to offer Jimmy a game. If the doubters had won that would have been end of story, but they don't and...Jimmy 'operating as a one-man forward line' scores all his team's goals in their 7-3 win. And, these things do happen, a man in a checked jacket approaches from the touchline and says, 'I'm Ian Clark manager of Castleburn City, you're the type of player I'm always looking for. Interested?'.

The Chelsey brothers return home. One tapped up by United, the other by City. 'Well, what a turn up,' says their open-mouthed Dad. But the offers of new houses and cars never materialise.

Within a fortnight the brothers are both in their respective first team for 'The match all of Castleburn was waiting for – United v City!' Jack opens the scoring from a short corner; Jimmy equalises near the end from a free kick: 'The Stadium almost exploded with excitement'. 'You couldn't have had a better result,' says Dad. (The family incidentally make Inspector Barnaby's in Midsomer Murders look two dimensional)

The stage is set for what will be perhaps the finest epic of the genre. Before the month is out Jimmy's hat-trick against Ringhurst ('Jimmy fooled the goalkeeper – by not shooting!) puts City top of the league after United have beaten Mandover thanks to a last minute goal from brother Jack (the most free scoring central defender to ever play the game).

City cash in on topping the league by bringing out their first new kit for fifty years. A decision Sailor Watson thinks is 'tempting fate'. Minutes into their next game goalkeeper Tony Price's kick ('Look out Sailor') hits Watsona on the back of the head and rebounds into the net. 'You clumsy clot, Sailor,' says Jimmy. 'We're fated!' says Sailor, 'This is just the beginning of our troubles'.

Not really. United and City play out another draw (Jack Chelsey's late goal cancelled out by Jimmy Chelsey's equaliser) in the league and are then drawn against each other in the third round of the Cup (Jimmy scores routine hat-trick, but City lose 4-3 as Jack scores routine last minute winner). 'Well at least our win leaves you free to concentrate on winning the League,' says Jack, giving the most almighty steer as to how the season might pan out.

But ohh the fun and japes to be had along the way. Jimmy it turns out is profligate (buying his Mum a deep-freeze – 'Something I've wanted for ages!') while Jack, well Jack is tighter than Jack Charlton.

Meanwhile, on the pitch...
'Jack spots Abbottown Albion's goalkeeper is right handed and takes advantage by scoring a goal on his weaker side!'
And
'Jimmy is a marked man and gives away an own goal! In despair he writes to the manager asking to be dropped!'

The exclamation marks proliferate until on the last day of the season United meet Stockburn in Final of the F.A.Cup in the afternoon while in the evening City play Westhill.

I would not dream of ruining the tension by revealing the results, although anyone who cannot be bothered to go to www.royoftherovers.com/comicstories/jackandjimmy
where the cartoons are lovingly stored will be relieved to know the names of the winning goalscorers are not a complete surprise.





3:31 pm gmt 

The Great Federer

Observer Column 13th September.

At time of writing it is impossible to know if Roger Federer has won, or even played, his semi-final against Novak Djokovic. But if, as the odds heavily suggest, he has won his 22nd consecutive Grand Slam semi-final then it will be an unprecedented achievement. From Wimbledon 2005 to the end of 2007 Federer completed in ten straight finals. If he prevailed in New York he has racked up another seven consecutive Grand Slam Finals and counting.  You have to go back to 2003 for a Wimbledon or U.S Open Final in which he did not play. There is greater strength in depth than ever before on the men's tour and yet Roger continues to make history.

Among all these outstanding figures it is his recent achievements which are the most astounding. This is because there was a moment when it seemed Federer was finished. 2008 was, by his standards, poor. There was the loss to Djokovic in the semi-final in Australia, perhaps down to him suffering mononucleosis. And a first round defeat to Andy Murray in Dubai. And a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 drubbing by Nadal at the French final. And the ending of his magnificent Wimbledon run and first defeat on grass for 65 games in that match, again against Nadal. And losing to James Blake, for the first time, in the Olympic quarter-final.

Normal order was resumed with a US Open victory against Murray. But then Nadal beat him again in Australia at the start of 2009, and Roger burst into tears. And this, it appeared, was his Borg moment. It was when McEnroe defeated the Swede for a second time that he jacked it in. The Wimbledon defeat he could just about live with but not being outwitted again in New York. There was no way back for Borg.

Federer, meanwhile, had been beaten three times in a row on three different surfaces by Nadal. He was losing to Murray on a regular basis. He smashed his racket in losing again to Djokovic. He couldn't even get far enough to confront his nemesis. The most sublime talent the game had seen appeared exhausted. If you have reached the heights that Federer has reached you don't come back.

Usually the greats go fast. Like his rival Borg, McEnroe's end was quick. 1984 was perhaps his greatest on the Tour as he racked up an 82-3 record which included a 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 victory over Connors in the Wimbledon Final and a 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 win over Ivan Lendl in the US Open Final. He appeared invincible; he never won another Slam. The lesson seemed to be that you can't be that good and return to being as good again.

Except that is exactly what Federer has done, completing a career Grand Slam by winning the French and then picking up his sixth Wimbledon title after the marathon against Andy Roddick. Not only was his game back, but so was his grace and charm. Instead of niggling about Murray, he was back to praising him to the skies. He was at ease once again in his terrible clothes.

There is just one cloud. These recent victories have been achieved in the absence of Nadal and, at time of writing it is as likely as not, that Federer will be meeting his old nemesis in the Final. And if he fails to become the first player since Laver to win French, Wimbledon and the U.S in the same year it will be because the Spaniard has completed a victory over him in each of the finals of the four Slams. The stakes could neither be higher nor rarer.

3:30 pm gmt 

Gamesmanship...

Cheating at the Games

There is a fine line between the nefarious practice of cheating and the fine art of gamesmanship as the following example demonstrates:
A couple of years ago I went on holiday with a friend who, despite him giving me a couple of shots a hole, I had not beaten at golf for a couple of decades. This was both unacceptable, and boring. But I had a plan, which I put into action as we pfaffed around on the first tee.
'How about, along with the usual two shots, if you also give me a kick,' I asked, winningly.
'A kick?'
'At a point of my choosing during the round I am allowed one free kick of a ball.'
He looked puzzled, but reasoning, quite understandably given that you would back me to kick a golf ball further than I could hit it, that I was talking about my own ball he said, 'Fine by me', walked onto the tee and nailed his drive 300 yards down the middle of the fairway.

And so we came to the 15th, where I found myself only one down with four to play and the tee temptingly placed on the edge of a cliff top. My opponent, looking to go dormie three, teed up his ball and then stepped back to do that thing with grass which people who have spent too long watching the Golf Channel tend to do. It was my moment and I didn't miss it. I charged the tee and with some aplomb punted his ball into the English Channel. To say my opponent was shocked was an understatement. In thirty five years of golfing he had never seen such a breach of etiquette. It took him over a minute to speak, and over five to say anything coherent. And then when he had gathered himself and teed up a new ball I merely had to say 'playing three of the tee' to started him spluttering again. The beauty of this example of gamesmanship was that we were now using different scoring systems which allowed me to allude to the incident simply by mentioning the score. He unravelled completely and I walked off the 17th claiming a well deserved, and long awaited, 2&1 victory. He, rather boringly, played the 18th on his own and I discovered from his wife, he never talked to me again, considered himself to have won the match '1 hole'. Each to their own.
Either you are a play it by the rules type of person and find my behaviour simply wrong. Or you are a play it by the rules as amended on the first tee type of person and find it rather admirable.

There are those who live by the rules and those that seek to bend them and this needs to be borne in mind when considering the plethora of recent cheating in sport incidents and attempting to draw some lines between them.

First, there have been the 'I was only following orders' cases. This covers Nelson Piquet jnr who has claimed: 'Mr Symonds took me aside and, using a map, pointed me to the exact corner of the track where I should crash'. And Williams of the 'Quins who was a terrified patsy reduced to doing the bidding of the despotic Richards. Far from acting on their wits both driver and winger were simply witlessly doing as they were told. This is the dismal end of cheating. The bullying and unpleasant version where someone is forced to do something against their will and does it not very well. There is no art, only force. It is the bottom of the barrel stuff.

Compare and contrast with Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas who, with a 1989 qualifier against Brazil going awry, reacted by artfully throwing himself into the smoke of a firecracker, which had conveniently landed nearby, pulling a razor blade from his glove and stabbing himself in the head. The plan could not have worked better; there was blood everywhere, a mass brawl, a walkout, and an abandonment…

He might have got away with it, too, if it hadn't been for wretched video evidence (haven't the police got anything better to do than watch TV?). As a result, Brazil were awarded the match, Chile were kicked out of a couple of World Cups, Rojas was banned for life, and the woman who threw the firecracker appeared in the Brazilian edition of Playboy. Pick the morals out of all that.

Second, there is the 'higher power' case. This covers the race horse trainer Nicky Henderson and his doping of the Queen's horse. Nicky, I think it is safe to say, loves and reveres his Queen as much as, say, Sir Thomas More loved and revered his God. Anything he does in her service is therefore beyond the laws and rules of mere men. And if that means giving a little injection to a little horse so Her Majesty can enjoy a much needed winner, then so be it. He is A Man for All National Hunt Seasons.

Third, there is the victimless crime case. This covers all stings on bookmakers, including the recent alleged snooker scam involving MaGuire and Burnett. Technically you can argue that bookmakers are sentient and capable of being victims, but you are going to have your work cut out. Most of us consider a betting coup as being heroic not shameful. It's the admirable side of cheating.

Finally, there is Eduardo. More already has been written about the Croatian footballer's dive than has been written about valid home-grown diving Gold medal  prospect Tom Daley. There are two camps. You either take the approach of the Uruguayan defender Pablo Montero that 'cheating the referee is not a sin if it helps your team to win' or you are more Corinthian in your beliefs and think the referee, like a John Lewis customer, is never wrong and that cheating is so sinful that it automatically invalidates any win.

Either way, I think we can agree on two things. First, cheating is better if it is done well. There was something inspired and balletic about Maradona's outwitting of Shilton. Bad cheating, in contrast, does no one any favours. This point it well made by Stephen Potter in his masterful Gamesmanship: 'Note - Do not attempt to irritate partner by spending too long looking for your lost ball. This is unsporting. But good gamesmanship which is also very good sportsmanship can be practised if the gamesman makes a great and irritatingly prolonged parade of spending extra time looking for his opponent's ball.' Magnificent. It is possible to, in the loosest sense, 'cheat' and still be the best of sports.

Second, you can't have sport without cheating. It is all old as the Roman hills. Nero, according to Suetionius, 'remains the most infamous, cheating, owner-charioteer in the history of the twelve centuries of Olympic festivals.'

His behaviour at the 211th Olympiad was typical. First, he postpones it from 65 to 67 AD to give himself more time to practice. Second, despite being thrown off his ten horse chariot, being helped back on by spectators, only to be thrown off again, he is awarded the race after launching a stewards enquiry claiming if he had finished he would have won. There's no arguing with that if it is the Emperor doing the arguing and Nero went on to win a Phipps bunch of Golds. Like Rojas, his triumph was short-lived. As soon as he died the 211th Olympiad was declared Anolympiad. But, by then, what did he care?

3:30 pm gmt 

Dick. Kerr Ladies Team

The Forgotten Story of....

….the Dick, Kerr Ladies Team.

By Will Buckley

With the English women's team about to play in a World Cup Final, and on the verge of a double with the England Women's cricket team unlikely ever to be matched by their male counterparts, it is an apposite time to revisit the feats of the first great British women's football team.

(I am a slouch when it comes to hyperlinking, if that's the term, but people wishing to read more, or indeed check my sources, should visit the wonderful website www.dickkerrladies.com (where Gail Newsham has compiled an exhaustive biography of the most successful women's football team in the world) and there is a n excellent article by chris hunt, from which I have drawn heavily, at chrishunt.biz.



Let me tell you a story...

Britain is at war against the Kaiser, morale is low in the factories, output is falling, something must be done. 'Let's play soccer,' suggests someone, who if he had been born a century later would surely have become a management consultant. This was a call which was doubly heeded at the Dick, Kerr and Co ammunitions factory in Preston. The men took up the challenge. The women took up the challenge.
The men played the women and lost. Little did they know that they were been watched from a window above by office administrator and big ideas man, Alfred Frankland, who mused to himself, 'I tell you what, this lot could fill Deepdale' (the women, that is).

He wasn't wrong. Dick, Kerr's beat Arundel Coulthard Factory 4-0 on Chirstmas Day 1917 in front of a crowd of 10,000. 'Dick, Kerr’s were not long in showing that they suffered less than their opponents from stage fright, and they had a better all round understanding of the game,' read a not at all patronising report in the Daily Post. 'Their forward work, indeed, was often surprisingly good, one or two of the ladies showing quite admirable ball control.'

A dream was born. Stars of the team included.

Florrie Redford: She's blonde, she's glam, she's Dick Kerr's number nine. The conscience of the dressing-room.
Lily Parr: Tricky left winger.  'A 15 year old with a kick like a Division One back' – The Daily News. Later, playing at Chorley, she would demonstrate this to be true by breaking a professional goalkeeper's arm with a shot struck from the edge of the area with minimal back-lift. Would score over 900 career goals.
Jennie Harris: Inside-left. A diminutive 4ft 10 in, she was the munition factory side's 'box of tricks'. The wizardess of the dribble.
Alice Kell: Captain: Quality full back but equally at home at centre-forward (see 2nd half hat-trick against St Helens Ladies at Goodison in 1920 in front of 53,000 baying spectators (14,000 locked out)
Jessie Walmsley: Centre-half with a big, infectious smile. A sort of female Jackie Charlton, if that is not too alarming.

This factory side was deftly improved by Frank(Arneson)land, who would tempt underage girls to Preston with cunning offers of employment topped up with paid for leave. The policy (and here the Arneson comparison falls down) worked.

There was no one who could touch the Dick Kerr's who always took to the field in their trademark bubble hats. 'Pop' Frankland and his girls needed a new challenge. 'I tell you what,' he mused to himself, 'this lot couldn't half murder the French.'

He invited them over. The press were there to greet them at Dover. 'Tell me about the Lancashire girls,' Madelaine Bracquemond said to them. 'They are big, strong and powerful, n’est-ce pas?”
'Come again, Madelaine,' replied the 1920's forerunner of Brian Woolnough.

Pop's predictions held up once again. The DK's beating the French 2-0 at Deepdale, 5-2 in Stockport, and enjoying the better of a 1-1 draw at Manchester's Hyde Road.
But then, in the game that would make them stars of Pathe and beyond, they were required to play outside Lancashire. In London, of all places. At Stamford Bridge.

It was not just a clash of cultures but a clash of styles. Here's Barbara Jacobs: 'The little French women were completely different from these big Lancastrian women. The French were petite and they walked on to the pitch to ‘Le Marseillaise’ with their arms by their sides and swivelling their hips. They were all small but perfectly formed. This little French team walking on like mannequins, while the big Lancashire women came running out of the tunnel kicking in.'

Confusingly, the mannequins packed quite a punch and Harris, all 4 foot 10 inches of her, was knocked unconscious early on. Down to ten women they lost 2-1. Of course we didn’t underestimate them,' said skipper Alice Kell speaking in the tunnel in front of a 'Drink Absinthe' hoarding after the match. 'Or allow them to win, but we didn’t put in the ‘last ounce’ as you might say.'

They recovered by beating the Rest of Britain 9-1 in the their next game. Not the least of the achievements of the DK's was that, in the days before premium phone lines, all of their money really did go to charity. They worked hard making munitions and then they played hard raising money for soldiers injured by munitions.

As is often the case, they turned out to be too good for their own good. On the 5th December 1921 the FA, conscious that their male players were less easy on the eye and less generous with the pocket, banned women's football. The minutes of the meeting read: ' Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged...blah, blah, blah.' The ban would last fifty years.

'There's always America,' mused Pop Frankland and over the pond went the Dick Kerr's . Playing largely against men they lost only three matches out of nine. 'I played against them in 1922,” recalled top stopper of his day Pete Renzulli. “We were national champions and we had a hell of a job beating them.”

Back in Blighty, times had changed. Dick Kerr's had become English Electric and in 1926 they parted company with Pop Frankland. A mistake, one would think because  Frankland's managerial record with the DK's (P 752, W 703, D 33, L 16) has only one 20th Century rival and that is the Harlem Globetrotters. 

3:29 pm gmt 

Platini and Blatter


Observer  September 6th.

Football, for all the grandiose claims it likes to make for itself, is merely part of the entertainment industry. And what show in the history of entertainment has not been improved by the introduction of a couple of rogue cops. Enter F.I.F.A and U.E.F.A who stormed on stage last week with the type of barnstorming law-enforcing which puts into perspective, and shames, the efforts of their 'cousins across the Pond', the C.I.A and the F.B.I.

To take the actions of the Zurich outfit first. Even at its most subtle The Company would have struggled to match the Blatter Boys instinctive feel for making the punishment fit the crime. Bend the transfer rules too far and they will snap back in your face. You play the game according to Blatter or you don't play at all. In short, don't dick with F.I.F.A.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter (and at the F.I.F.A/C.I.A level these are moot) this has indubitably added to gaiety of the football nation. At a stroke, the predators are vulnerable. Whereas once they stalked the transfer jungle offering 'silly money' to anyone who took their fancy now they must sit tight and tense throughout Christmas and January for fear that a rival will lure Nicholas Anelka away and leave them toothless. And it may not stop there. What if big beasts Manchester City, on a whim, decide to hoover up each and every left-footed player at the club. That would test Ancelotti's fabled diamond, perhaps to destruction.

Thankfully, F.I.F.A have never been cracking open a beer and sitting back on their laurels type of guys and after nailing The Little Roman they are now going after the Glazer Family. These, figuratively and literally, would be mighty scalps. Imagine the torment of Sir Alex Ferguson sitting through not one, but two, transfer windows with the Ronaldo millions burning a hole in his pocket and no option but to absorb the pain. How red would be his face?

A side effect of this perceptive policing will be that both Chelsea and United might find that, prevented from spending money, their books will be balanced. They will have served their debt to society and be starting with a clean slate at exactly the moment that the hardnuts at U.E.F.A introduce their financial fair play regulations. Not for the first time a F.I.F.A punishment will turn out to be for the offender's own good.

Meanwhile, Platini's mob in Basel, in a footballing sense the spiritual descendants of J Edgar Hoover, have not been idle. At first glance, it may be hard to divine the wisdom in their handling of the Eduardo case, but, as with so much of Platini's work, it takes time for its genius to sink in.

But genius it is for the Frenchman has turned everything on its head. In future should a player essay a dive and escape the referee's censure it will be in his best interests to get back on his feet and, rubbing his fake injury, turn himself in to the fourth official. Better, after all, an immediate yellow than a two match ban down the line. Who shall police the divers? Why the divers themselves. Hoover, himself, could not have devised a neater solution.

What's more, defenders who, having clogged a dribbler, stand over him chiding him for diving will be doubly punished. First, a CCTV backed yellow card for the foul itself and then another for dissimulation. Dissembling is a two-way street - if diving is a sin then so is falsely accusing someone of being sinful. Little wonder U.E.F.A's new motto is Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity.



3:28 pm gmt 

Taking the positives from hooliganism...


Observer  August 30th.

Welcome to the column which takes a thoroughly Panglossian view on the wide wide world of sports. This week: Carling Cup Second Round: West Ham 2, Millwall 1.

Superficially, this match, as Sports Ministers are prone to saying, was 'an absolute disgrace to football'. Scratch a little deeper, however, and the positives begin to appear:
a) 'Worse than the Seventies'. In some of the immediate, and more intemperate, responses to the game it was claimed that football had not only gone back to the Dark Ages but also produced scenes which were worse than anything that happened in the 70s. This claim is unsustainable. It is part, perhaps all, of that decade's charm that it indisputably offered the worst of all things to all people. Nothing can be worse than the seventies, to claim otherwise makes you look silly.
b) 'Put the balls back in the pot'. This was the inspired suggestion from football's Mr Sage, Harry Redknapp, should West Ham ever be drawn against Millwall again. It's a marvellous idea, but why limit it to the two London clubs. Now it is out in the open that every football draw is rigged let's make a prime time song and dance about it. The format couldn't be simpler. Two gnarled pros under the watchful eye of Sir Trevor Brooking draw the homes and aways and then it's over to the panel (Rodney Marsh, Karren Brady, and Peter Bonetti might work) to decide if the game is entertaining enough to progress into the main draw.
c)'Disappointing policing'. It is generally agreed by leading members of the hooligan community that the police 'didn't show up' on Tuesday night. They didn't, as it were, 'come to the party'. One reason for this may be that the less than positive coverage they received after the G20 scuffles has left them disheartened. Policing riots, quite simply, is no longer worth the agg. This may give hooligans free rein (although many will quickly tire of the game if it lacks 'police involvement' as it was the tri-partite nature of the confrontation which used to lend it much needed subtelty and complexity) but is good news for protestors. And, therefore, democracy.
d)'The new technology'. It seems more than likely that text and twitter and 'Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life' were all used to help plan and incite the furore. The combination of drunk middle aged men and instant messaging is a potentially combustible one. But let's not be too despondent. Looked at another way it was encouraging, vis a vis the long-term economic health of the nation, to have evidence that people described by Tony Cascarino as 'the scum nation of men' were completely on top of the bewildering array of technology now at their disposal. Compare and contrast with the 70s when all too often you would see even top notch hooligans struggling to get to grips with a simple payphone and repeatedly banging the handset against a convenient wall in the hope of sparking a connection. Skillsets have moved on.
 e) 'At least it is not rugby union.' In a happy coincidence of timing that, the match took place in the same week as Rugby Union descended to joke shop level.  It was therefore open to defenders of the football to claim that their blood, like the great Ricky Ponting's, was real not fake. That said, this column would like to stress that Harlequins, too, have come out of this week with some credit. It was after all they who were prinicipled enough to refuse to pay off the whole of their winger's mortgage in exchange for him massaging his evidence.
f) 'It could have been worse'. A friend remembers going to see a London Derby in the early 60s sponsored by Wilkinson Sword. Given away free with every programme...a razor blade.


3:27 pm gmt 

The Salacious Aggers

Test Match Special Interviews (750 words)

The Test Match Special Interview slot is fast becoming the sporting Desert Island Discs. Over the years Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Dennis, but not Frank, Skinner and the Duke of Edinburgh have all been guests. But seldom has the host Jonathan Agnew, an unlikely cross between Roy Plomley and Sue Lawley, salivated quite as much as he did yesterday.

'My lunch time guest has arrived to great excitement,' announced Aggers a full three-quarters of an hour before the interview. This was perfectly dead-batted back by Phil Tufnell, who professed ignorance of any such guest.
'Don't you know? Oh, Tuffers, where have you been? It's someone who travelled on a bus from Amsterdam to be here?
'Denis Bergkamp,' guessed Tuffers.
'I hope not. I hope she's going to behave.'
'Give me five minutes I'll work this out.'

Once again, Tuffers had bested Aggers. There has been competition between the pair recently as Aggers, plagued by mid-life doubts, has vicariously lusted over The Cat's parallel career as a 'celebrity realist'. Aggers, quite simply, is jealous. He is envious of some of the Cat's action, even his appearances on Hole in the Wall. He wants some for himself and what Aggers wants Aggers gets...Aggers in the Jungle. It will happen.

If, and it's a big if, he could do a Lembit Opek and pull off some kind of celebrity cross-generational affaire. No wonder he was so nervous in the build-up to his interview with Lily Allen: 'It's a bit like my early encounter with Jeff Thompson....you're not wearing that Lily...wardrobe malfunction...I must say that's dedication, to come all the way from Amsterdam...very good effort to come...singing I do believe in Chelmsford this afternoon...tremendous stamina...not sure about the wig, do you know what that's all about, well you won't get headphones over it, that's for sure..I've really been looking forward to this one.'

And finally it arrived but when it did so, and as is so often the case, Agnew/Allen turned out to be more about the interviewer than the interviewee as Aggers attempted to walk the dangerously thin line between benevolent uncle and desperate middle-aged man panting on the edge of the dance floor. He failed. 'You weren't even born then, ohh dear' and 'I'd have thought you'd be more of a one day girl' and 'I'm quite getting into your music' and 'I've been out there and played a bit' and 'it's just destined to be' and 'is this what you expected to find up here' and 'we might go and see Warney later' all suggesting that Aggers had positioned himself firmly on the pervy side of things.

It had all, as with so many putative celebrity couplings, started with a twitter. Aggers was alone in a stand in Edgbaston. He was lost but he was found. 'We keep plugging the twitter because it's good fun,' said Aggers who went on, not to put too fine a point on it, to admit that he has been stalking the young singer ever since the third Test. So it was that he knew Lily had bought a watch which...wait for it... 'didn't fit.' 'It looked big,' being the Aggers verdict.

It could, it has to be said, have become rather seedy at this point but fortunately the sensible Lilly cold-showered things by reminding Aggers that 'I've got harassment orders out.' 'Really,' said Aggers, and you could almost hear him weighing up the risks. 'TMS Honcho in Stalking Shame!' - yup he could live with that headline.

'You have to be quite brave to take you on...boyfriends and things,'' said Aggers, rather uncomplicatedly..
'Let's not go there, Aggers,' said Lily, who, for one, didn't want to see the fabled TMS interview slot degenerate into Carry On farce. Stoically she stuck to cricket, expressing her preference for the Test version of the game and suggesting there should be 'seven or nine Tests a summer. All out war.'

Uninterested and undaunted, Aggers kept returning the conversation to wardrobe malfunctions. Until even the lovely Lily had had enough and she cruelly scotched Aggers' amorous ambitions by mentioning 'I'd like to go and visit Chris Old.'

Perhaps appropriately it all ended in a mess of twitters - Aggers completely shot as interviewer now and proving it by reading out questions from twitees. It was not his finest hour. Yet you can guarantee we will never hear the end of it. 'It's been an absolute treat...it's not been an easy ride for you..this is extraordinary, I feel exactly the same way...you're the first person I've had on here who has brought notes...that was Lily Allen, of course.'

3:26 pm gmt 

Tribute to Freddie


Observer August 23

Asked, boringly, to explain what his novel Lunar Park was about Brett Easton Ellis replied briskly, 'fathers and sons, all my books are about fathers and sons.' The great comic novelist may have been exaggerating but only slightly because, being inexhaustible, it is a subject to which he frequently returns. For many it is also a relationship which forms the cornerstone of their love of a particular sport. Certainly it is for me with cricket.

The first cricketer I remember meeting with my father was Sir Leonard Hutton at Hove. We were both so impressed I asked for his autograph. It was Hutton who had made 365 when my father was the same age as I was when I approached him with scorecard and pen. It was Hutton – brave, phlegmatic, dignified – who would become the first professional to captain England.

The last cricketer I remember watching with him was Andrew Flintoff at the Oval. In my memory the young Flintoff strides to the wicket, takes guard and proceeds to biff the ball over mid off and bash the ball over mid on with such power that the Surrey fielder placed at bowler's, rather than wicket-keeper's, long stop cannot prevent it hitting the boundary hoardings. This might have been the 135 not out described by David Gower as "the most awesome innings we are ever going to see on a cricket field". But, boringly checking the records, my father had been dead for months by then, so I doubt it. In fact, boringly checking the records unearths no evidence of this innings. Trust me, however, whatever the records may say, it most surely happened. And it is Flintoff – brave, charismatic, amused – who may well be seen as the last amateur to play for England.

Flintoff's career has been one of moments, not records. He has scored nearly 4,000 Test runs and taken just over 200 Test wickets but neither of these figures does him justice because, of course, it is when you make your runs and take your wickets that is so important and Freddie has had the happy habit of doing so at the most vital of times. He seems to have been at the heart of every significant English cricket victory of this millennium. Apart perhaps, and fittingly if so, this last one. How perfect to take your bow at the same time your team has finally discovered someone to take you place.

It is not just the perfect timing which has illuminated Freddie's career but the grace with which he has exhibited it. That moment with Brett Lee and the gentle sledging of Tino Best ('mind the windows, Tino') being two among countless examples. For Freddie the game has been the thing. It is all about the game and yet only a game.

He has magnificently, and somehow, managed to be beyond the brand. Whereas his team-mate Kevin 'KP” Pietersen can appear to be the sum of his slogans, Flintoff has always been his own man. He is bigger than any company that might wish to endorse him. He is too gregarious to be encapsulated in a mere logo. And, liking a drink, he could never be accused of taking things too seriously.

Michael Vaughan, the man who captained Flintoff best, wrote of him last week, 'he is not the most professional cricketer, but with Fred you accept the whole package.' And with this most glorious of amateurs this was always considerably more than the facts and figures might represent.

Yesterday when Freddie walked toward the pavilion at the Oval, having batted for England for the last time, the universal and heartfelt applause reflected the affection in which he is held. It is a gift great sportsmen bestow upon us that in appreciating their performances we are bonded closer together. And few have delivered it with more aplomb, or a greater sense of fun, than Freddie Flintoff.


3:26 pm gmt 

Norwich 1 Colchester 7

Piece starts


August 8th 3.23 pm.

Take note of this date for it surely marks a new record for the earliest flinging of a season ticket at his manager by a disgruntled fan. Yet half an hour earlier at Carrow Road everything had been sweetness and light. Over 25,000 fans were packed in, Norwich had enjoyed a successful pre-season combining a number of seemingly judicious purchases with a flurry of pre season victories, and the sun was shining. The top of the Barclay was a happy place to be.

And so it continued for at least half a dozen minutes as the Canaries played some scintillating football, toying with Colchester United, putting on a Premiership style game in a third tier setting. And then things unravelled quicker than I have ever seen them unravel in any sport at any time.

The spark was a skewed back pass from right back Otsemobor which required débutante goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos, who claims to be keeping his options open as to whether to represent Australia or Greece at international level, to punch the ball away as it went over his head. He missed. From less than a foot he missed a ten inch target. A miscalculation that allowed Lisbie to open the scoring for the Linnets, from a yard, into an empty goal. The rest of his team looked upon Theo with disbelief. Their collective 'fuck me, where did this clown come from?' being almost audible.

Three minutes later, the far from quick Lisbie speeds past Norwich captain Gary Doherty (a.k.a The Ginger Pele) and places a modest shot towards Theo who falls over and palms it into the path of Platt who shoots into an empty net. 0-2.

Six minutes later, Theo and his defence having blundered when being active decide that a policy of complete inaction might be preferable. This proves ill-advised. Platt taps into an empty net at the far post. 0-3.

Three further minutes later, Colchester are awarded a free kick 20 yards out. Theo, confidence shattered, takes up position outside the goal, crouching behind the post. 0-4.

At which stage a noble father and son team from the Snakepit area of the ground didn't so much invade the pitch as clamber on to it and stroll half the length of it before readying themselves for their protest. All of this, it should be stated, was carried out with a commendable dignity which was only undermined by the nature of the season ticket they were bearing. Have you ever tried throwing a credit card? It's a bit like skimming stones and requires no little skill and technique. Put simply, it is probably best to practise before trying it in public. But why would the Norwich fans have felt the need to practise? The pre-season had been a belter. It was only August 8th. The time for honing season ticket dispensing skills would come later, if at all.

So it was that the protestors's protest fell rather flat. Rather than skimming the tickets off manager Gunn's bald noggin and up into the directors' box, the flung tickets simply and limply fell to earth leaving everyone pondering that thorny environmental chestnut: Who picks up the unwanted season ticket? Steward? Fourth Official? Assistant Manager?

The tickets lying on the ground might have prompted Gunn to make some substitutions. Being 4-0 down in 20 minutes does after all suggest Plan A has gone awry. Gunny did nothing. Not even at half-time after the Oystermen had notched a fifth, Theo crouching head in hands in his six yard box like a twitchy bomb disposal expert as the ball floated over him. His confidence was shot but Gunny did nothing for fear that substituting his goalkeeper would shoot his confidence. An absurd piece of old pro's logic. Just because you would have been mortified to be subbed as a goalie doesn't mean you should never sub your goalie as a manager.

3:25 pm gmt 

Underdogs
Observer August 9th



Now of all times seems the time to come to the aid of the underdog. For a deadeningly long period domestic football has been dominated by the 'Premiership brand'. The injection of the Sky millions into the football economy encouraging an unbridled capitalism under which the richer became richer, but fewer. In the absence of any restraints on, or redistribution of, wealth the game became less competitive and now English football is moving inexorably towards a monopolistic (manupolistic?) state. Its progress towards this depressing conclusion passing largely unhindered by a supine press, who greedily imagined they could build their own brands on the back of the Premiership brand.

To this end, their mantra has been Premiership Uber Alles and all else has been excluded and ignored. In most newspapers there will be more reporters at a single Premiership match than there are at all non-Premiership matches combined. A skewing of priorities which infuriates those who support teams considered inferior by the arrivistes who are long on cash but short on history and talk excessively about 'their product'.

There is, however, a glimpse of an opportunity and it was first seen at 5.20 yesterday afternoon when BBC 1 showed West Brom v Newcastle live. The figures for this broadcast will be very interesting as it is possible they will be perhaps as much as ten times those generated by Sky for a bog standard Premiership match.

The numbers might, in a very pleasant change, actually stack up for the so called little guys. Already the Championship is the fifth best attended league in the world. This season it will only get bigger as Newcastle (av attendance 48,470), Middlesborough (28,429) and West Brom (25,828) join the non-Premiership party, an event attended by Roy Keane's Ipswich, both sides of Sheffield, and the Midlands triumvirate of Forest, Derby and Leicester. Meanwhile, over at the Product Ball the likes of Hull, Stoke, Portsmouth, Burnley, Blackburn and Wigan will be chewing on stale canapés while having to listen to people who work in marketing. What's more, the teams jostling for entry into the party, Norwich (24,542), Leeds (23,813) and Charlton (20,984), will have greater support than those, Portsmouth (19,829), Wigan (18,350) and Burnley (13,082), supposedly dreading an invite. 

All of which is encouraging and suggests that yesterday's match, and the nine other games which the BBC will screen live during the season, will draw impressive audiences. At a time when the Ashes and the Rugby World Cup sold out for money it may be that the much derided Championship will benefit from being free to all on the BBC. It will cost nothing to watch and yet be more competitive. In the Premiership there are three teams at 4-1 or less; in the Championship none. In the Premiership all bar five are at odds of 125-1 or longer; in Championship all the teams are available at less than 125-1.

All of which should lead to an exponential rise in people watching and talking about the Championship and by season's end it will be in everyone's interests for the BBC to show a weekly match for 2010/11. At a stroke, Soccer Sunday would have a credible rival. In fact, it would be dwarfed by the BBC figures. Before long sponsors would realize they received more exposure to more people by having their name on a Championship shirt than anything other than a top 4 Premiership shirt.

At this stage the numbers men, being numbers men, would step in and sidle up to the Championship chair people and say, 'hey, buddy, how about rebranding yourselves as the Product II?'. And those chair people, nearly all of them having been scarred by their time in the Premiership, would politely tell the men in shiny suits where to get off.

A pipe dream, obviously, but every underdog must have his day.







3:24 pm gmt 

Rain

Observer August 2nd

How early is too early to start praying for rain? It might be thought that such defensive tactics should not be resorted to until, as in 2005, the series is reaching its conclusion at the Oval . But this is to misread the precedent. The correct interpretation is that as soon as England take a rare and elusive lead in an Ashes series then you should hit the mat and seek help.

Fortunately English cricket lovers fully understand this and from the moment history was repeated at Lords after a gap of 75 years they have prayed to their various Gods for a deluge. And boy have their wishes being granted. The rain that fell on Edgbaston varied between the torrential and the biblical. If it hadn't been for satanic modern technology then Birmingham itself would have been washed away and England would have arrived at Trent Bridge wearing black armbands and with their precious series lead intact. Job done.

This baffles Australians. And one of their number, a comedian no less, appeared on Sky News (it is one of the oddities of a British summer the people who appear on Sky News during late July and August) and castigated the plan outlined in the opening two paragraphs (also known as passive bodyline) for being unnecessarily negative.

Hoggardwash. It is, like the great man's batting, not negative, but realistic. And what could be more grittily realist than to wish for a hat-trick of abandoneds without a ball being bowleds which would make Monty Panesaar MBE an unlikely hero and ensure
that Frederick Flintoff could receive his knighthood without risking further injury. It would also royally piss off the baggy greens wearers to think that laxity in Cardiff cost them the Ashes. Further, being famously impatient as a nation, fifteen consecutive days sitting on their arses doing nothing might have been the ruin of their team.

In the end, disappointingly, there was cricket. And as Australia raced to a hundred in under twenty overs I cannot have been alone in wishing that the covers were back on and we were all enjoying another fascinating passage of passive bodyline. The fault, as ever, lay with the weathermen who back in May confidently predicted 'a barbecue summer' thereby teeing us all up for a glut of passive bodyline but then last Wednesday ruined everything by downgrading their forecast to above average rainfall. This was not only feeble (the equivalent, frankly, of making a prediction after you have seen the result) but verging on the traitorous. The series now has a lot more agonising cricket left in it. Even victory at a sunkissed Edgbaston would not ease the pain for a draw would still be required at Trent Bridge or the Oval. Job not at all done.

More relaxing by far to don the kagool, put up the plastic umbrella and enjoy Marcus Berkmann's extremely funny 'Ashes to Ashes – 35 years of humiliation (and about 20 minutes of ecstasy) watching England v Australia'. Berkmann is the perfect guide to to agonies of watching the Ashes, not least because he has remembered (or possible recorded) every word uttered by every commentator (his favourite moment being 'Jones! Bowden!' by Richie Benaud [Kasprowicz c Jones b Harmison] which he considers to be superior, just, to Bill Lawry's 'Tufnell! Tufnell! YEAH! TUFNELL!)

He also, in his final paragraph beautifully encapsulates the appeal of the game: 'Fortunately that's the essence of cricket: we can speculate all we like over what might have been, but the narrative is so complex that everything depends on what has happened before, and everything that is yet to happen will depend on what happens now. Great sport, as 2005 was, demands that we live in the present.'

And, selfish perhaps, but my present would be considerably less stressful if it were bucketing down on groundsman Steve Rouse wearing galoshes and looking perplexed.


3:23 pm gmt 

Depressing pre-season friendlies...

Observer july 26th

Where were you for the Wembley Cup? Abroad, maybe? Generally a.w.o.l? Or just asleep?

How about the Emirates Cup? Have you block-booked your tickets? Or maybe you are already inked in to watching Hull in Beijing compete in  the Asia Trophy?

Or maybe you find the whole pre-season sideshow utterly depressing, if not  downright odd. It comprises after all a flurry of matches for meaningless trophies which are only taken seriously not by the players but by sad fans and marketing men. If your life is reduced to watching friendlies it is time to for some form of reckoning.

Not least because by showing any interest at all you are merely encouraging wretched people like IMG”s vice president of media football (Yes there is such a concept as 'media football', and it has its own presidency). His name is Shiva Misra and he is the lack of brains behind the Wembley Cup about which he says, 'there is a growing rationalisation among clubs regarding how their pre-seasons should be structured.'

Which word is most offensive in that sentence:
a) Rationalisation.
b) Structured.
c) Growing.
I would plump for c) on the grounds that a proliferation of pre-season tournaments is a bleak prospect. It could become football's equivalent of the nuclear option with superpowers stockpiling pre-season tournaments and threatening to host one at the slightest hint of an insult. An action which would inevitably trigger a series of pre-season tournaments in reprisal with the whole thing ending in a pre-season meltdown  leaving neither time nor resources for the season itself.

When this happens Misra and his fellow travellers in the whole sorry business of media football will be to blame. It is important therefore to start to campaign against those who profess faith in media football and would wish to brand the life out of the game. We need to show them up for what they are. And as the unanimous choice as vice-president for the recently formed C P-S D (Campaign for pre-season disarmament) I suggest we follow the lead of horse-racing. This, as football soon will be, is a sport which operates on two levels. There is the public spectacle in which horses run in public and we the public, willing dupes to a man, bet on the order in which they might finish to finance the whole show. The primary purpose of these displays is to determine how much the horses can earn behind closed doors at the stud farm. 'Race for show, breed for dough' has long been a maxim among owners of horseflesh.

Football, if the hawks in the media football movement have their way, could easily follow the same pattern. The matches and competitions, financed by willing dupes buying season tickets, will be secondary to the selling of merchandise and global television rights. It will be all about reach and revenue as the owners of football clubs, just like the owners of racehorses, seek to maximise the returns on their investment. There is no business like the replica shirt business.

To draw attention to their mercenary profiteering it would be helpful if the owners of Premiership clubs were named in the same way as the owners of horses. So it is that the Big Four would have brackets attached in which would be written: The Glazers, Hicks & Gillett,  Abramovich, and Sheikh Mansour (or if you cling to the old world order 'Arsenal Holdings Plc').

Over time as the real nature of the competition was revealed the names in the brackets would replace the names of the clubs. Just as horse-racing became reduced to a battle between the Godolphin operation and the Coolmore set so English football will one day be simply a fight between the Arabs and the Americans and the Russians. 


3:23 pm gmt 

Staring at the sea listening to TMS


Observer July 19th

As a general rule the sport on TV job is a sedentary beat. You sit on a sofa and watch, and then you sit on a chair and type. The walk from sofa to chair is about as active as it gets. There are exceptions. During the 1998 World Cup I embarked upon a hare-brained chase round the world to watch sport on TV in as many different competing countries as possible. So it was that I left the safety of my sofa and watched games from locations as exotic as the transit lounge at Santiago airport and a customs booth at Bucharest airport (for the USA v Iran match when Ceauscescu's soldiers were solidly pro Ayatollah, which may have had fascinating geopolitical implications but, needy for a couple of settlers before the next flight to South Korea, I went with a light, barely, comic piece)

This marathon aside, it has been sofas all the way. Until last week when the family arose from the sofa to go and stare at the Atlantic and, thanks heavens for Radio 4 Long Wave, were blessed with a simply outstanding sports-listening location. To escape from the tentacles of the internet and mobiles and yet still be able to tune into Test Match Special was to be in a place which offered the best of both worlds. There was even a sense of actually being there when the broadcast would cut away to the Shipping Forecast and as Fastnet was mentioned I could point out to the sea and say to the children 'Fastnet'.

The Shipping Forecast has become the Proustian madeleine of sports broadcasting. There were many memorable S.Fs during the 2005 Ashes and there was another one last Sunday when with England stoically defending their few remaining wickets we were off to hear about the weather expected at Dogger and Shannon and German Bite and Biscay and dear old Fastnet.

Despite the anxiety of not knowing what was happening in Cardiff the forecast, through the repetition of the familiar litany of names, has a calming effect on the nerves. Nothing can be too wrong in the world if  in Lundy there will be 'occasional rain moderate or good'. And, more often than not, England's position tends to be sunnier, if only incrementally, when we return to the action (n.b to bored media studies students: it would helpful if someone could definitively detail whether the forecast has actually had a benign or malign effect on the England cricket side).

Another joy of TMS is that, particularly during the Ashes, there is empathy between listener and broadcaster. The commentators and analysts, while god forbid never being anything other than unbiased, do with the tone and the timbre of their voices betray where their sympathies lie. We are all in this together. When Monty Panesaar went out to bat with eleven overs remaining they shared our concern.

So great is the bond that it can survive even a flurry of 'dear old things' from Blofeld. As he nears the end of his broadcasting career he is firing off a dear old thing every minute, that is to say he is motoring at 60 d.o.t's per hour. This is some catchphrasing - even past cliché masters Cannon and Ball struggled to shift along in excess of  twenty 'Rock on Tommys' per hour – and under normal circumstances would be excessively irritating but such is the hypnotic effect of TMS it merely adds to its charm.

(It has just been made plain to me that unless I am capable of seeing for twenty miles plus I have been misinformed re Fastnet and, in turn, have misinformed the children. No matter. We live in an age where perception trumps reality and if I thought it was Fastnet then, for my purposes, Fastnet it was)

3:21 pm gmt 

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