Friday, 18 November 2011

Commentators and "context"

A short rant about football commentary, match-day summarisers
and the production values of modern-day football broadcasting

Photo: Andy Hall
Competitive sport makes for compelling television for lots of reasons. But ask a hundred sports fans why they enjoy watching live sport and not one of them will tell you they like it "because the commentators talk about things other than the actual sporting action".

Over the summer the BBC was forced to apologise for their tennis commentators "over-talking" during the Wimbledon Championships, their excuse being that the commentary team were giving "context" to the matches they were describing.

Context? Really? If people are tuning in for a quarter-final between Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick, I think it's a safe bet to assume that they know what they're watching and why this match is occurring. If they don't, they're clearly not very bright, so let them catch up as we go along rather than drag the entire viewing audience down to their level.

Of course, the producer often exacerbates matters, with his constant cutaways to the players' wives, girlfriends, mothers, one-time lovers. A lingering shot of some woman in sunglasses tossing her hair about does rather force the commentator's hand. If he stays silent, it's just a needlessly long shot of a crowd member. Provide context he must.

The problem is particularly bad in football. Football demands 45-minute periods of concentration from the viewer. That's quite a long time for the average person to concentrate solidly. So when you're trying to focus on the game, what could be less helpful that the commentator blathering on about the home team's chairman and his business interests, transfer speculation around the players involved, the big game coming up on that channel later that day, and so on. It's so bloody distracting.

Football on the radio today is a nightmare. Decades ago radio commentators used to divide the pitch into eight squares, to provide quick and easy reference points for listeners trying to picture the game in their imaginations. (This, as you may know, is where the expression "back to square one" originates from.) But now, when you listen to a match on 5Live or wherever, not only do they spend half the time discussing other things (the centre back's hair, the away team's upcoming European fixture, all those empty seats in the director's box, the traffic they sat in on the way to the game), but they constantly go "around the grounds" getting updates from reporters at other games. These reporters, knowing they've only got 30 seconds to impress, speak so fast it makes your head hurt. They pepper their little vignettes with flowery adjectives, metaphors and a hearty dose of oomph. By the time the producer cuts back to the main game, you've forgotten what was happening, who was shooting which way and (sometimes) why you even cared in the first place.

And how often they miss goals! Think how many times you've been listening to football on the radio and they cut away to Dave Bogbrush at the Reebok for an update on the Bolton game, and when they come back Alan Green, Mike Ingham or whoever has to sheepishly say: "And while you were away there's been an almighty goalmouth scramble, Everton having several chances to score and Villa continually getting bodies in the way. The ball eventually fell to Fellaini and he's nudged it home. So it's 1-0 now with 15 minutes to half-time and Villa have a free-kick..."

I want to hear that happen *live*, you scoundrels! I want to hear the glorious chaos unfold blow by blow, not be given a bite-size summary of how it wasn't the prettiest goal the crowd will ever see. I understand we need to know what's happening in other big games, but can't somebody just slip the main commentator a piece of paper that says "Bolton goal, 28 min, Klasnic header, 1-0", rather than having to waste 30 seconds getting a full description of the goal? Save that for half-time, for goodness sake.

Must we be so incessantly, constantly entertained? It's exhausting. If it's a rank bad game, let us glory in the fact. Let us laugh at ourselves for being foolhardy enough to tune in to Birmingham v Derby.

It is virtually impossible to focus on a game if the commentators are wittering on about mooted moves to new stadiums, unrest in the boardroom, "Oh, and there's Lily Allen in the crowd... she's wearing a woolly hat and there is a bit of a chill in the air, can't say I blame her. Daughter of Keith Allen, of course, lovable rogue and a big football fan himself. No doubt she'll be straight on the phone to dad at full-time".

Shut up, man! Darren Fletcher's about to take a throw-in. Now sodding tell me about it.

  1. Barry Davies, 1971, Coventry v Everton.
  2. Brian Moore, 1985, Man Utd v Liverpool.
  3. John Motson, 2001, England v Greece.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Is football all about the players? Part 2 of 2

Jamie Carragher and Ray Wilkins give their thoughts on why the England manager should be an Englishman. Carragher's argument is hard to argue with, but Wilkins' analysis reflects badly on the state of the English game

I had said previously that I'd report back on the talk about modern footballers at the Leaders In Football conference earlier in the month. In truth, I've been stalling on getting round to writing this blog since so much of what Jamie Carragher, Ray Wilkins and Fabio Cannavaro said on the day was reported by the media. Such is the life of a blogger who also has a full-time day job, getting round to writing up a blog on something you attended can be rendered a lot less worthwhile if somebody gives the press a few soundbites. 

The talk was less of an insight into the mindset of a modern footballer than billed, and proved to be more of a rambling discussion which leapt about quite a bit. As it turned out, the most interesting stuff was what Carragher and Wilkins had to say on the subject of the England manager. Their thoughts are not especially ones that I agree with, but were well argued nonetheless.

Carragher has strong feelings that the England manager should be an Englishmen: "Its not anything against foreign coaches coming to manage England, it’s just about what I think international football is. It’s our best against their best. Whether that’s the best keeper, best centre forward, wherever. If we’re short, then we have to improve.

"Surely if you’re English and you go on a coaching course, the idea is for the England manager’s job to be what you aspire towards? For me, you shouldn’t have a foreign member of staff. The best doctor in the country should be the England doctor, or whatever. It should be your best against another country’s best," he said.

Wilkins credits moving to Italy with turning him into a proper professional, yet still
thinks the England manager should be an Englishman due to the players' mindsets
Ray Wilkins was in vehement agreement with Carragher, saying: "I’d like to see an English manager. We’ve tried it and we haven’t gone that far in World Cups with foreign coaches. I had the fortune of going to Italy and playing. Their attitude to football is completely different to our attitude. When Fabio came in there were lots of changes, especially on the discipline side. Now, I’ve no problem with discipline at all, but the England player reacts slightly differently to the way the Italian player reacts. 

"I never became a professional footballer until I was 27 - the day I moved to Italy. That’s when I actually started to live the right way, which meant I was able to play for a long period after. Everything was so professional; the diet was kicking in then. I thought I was relatively professional until I went to Italy and realised I was unfit. The fitness coach took our fat counts, got the results and said 'We’ve got a fat guy in the room'. So of course I’m looking round thinking 'Where is he?'. But it was me. I was the fat guy. It gave me the routine I needed to live each day. Within a month I lost an inch and a half off my waist and I was flying."

Isn't that depressing? Ray Wilkins has played and lived in Italy and completely immersed himself in the culture and the mindset, and credits the experience with broadening his horizons and turning him into a proper athlete. Yet he has so little faith in the England players of today that he thinks they wouldn't benefit from a foreign coach with advanced ideas telling them a few things they might want to change if they want to cease being a national embarrassment every time they go to a major tournament.

We might be miles behind the Spanish and Germans in terms of technique, but we're even further behind when it comes to hunger. Our mollycoddled players just aren't prepared to put their faith in one man and work their backsides off. Unless perhaps if that man is an Englishman who'll "keep things simple" and constantly praise them to the hilt. 

So in answer to my original question back in part one of this blog - Is Football All About The Players? - the answer would appear to be, in this country at least, yes. It's not a happy state of affairs, but one we're stuck with for the foreseeable. All part of football's general sickness at the highest level in England.

I'm off to flick through my 1986/87 Panini sticker album and see if I can spot some ambition and pride in the players' eyes. I can hardly wait for Euro 2012.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Kia Joorabchian on Carlos Tevez in Munich: the complete interview transcript

Controversy erupts on Manchester City's bench in Munich
Today at the Leaders In Football summit, held at Chelsea FC's Stamford Bridge, a hastily arranged Q&A with Carlos Tevez's representative Kia Joorabchian was organised. Asking the questions was former executive director of the FA David Davies. 

Below is the full transcript of their conversation about the incidents in Munich last week, when Carlos Tevez is alleged to have refused to come off the bench for Manchester City in a Champions League game.

I do not offer any comment or opinion on the contents of their discussion, and instead leave you to make up your own mind. The press will of course select some choice quotes for their stories in tomorrow’s papers. But for completeness, here’s everything Joorabchian said on Tevez before the discussion moved to more global football matters.

DD: Did Carlos Tevez refuse to play for Manchester City at any stage?
: Well there’s an internal investigation going on, so whatever I say here is my opinion and not Carlos’s. I haven’t spoken to him about it. What the investigators think and what Carlos thinks is their issue. I’ve tried to keep at arm’s length from it. I am party to some extra information that I hopefully will not divulge today! The main thing is that what happened was an issue of a lot of confusion. While I don’t believe that it’s correct for any player to behave in a manner that is contrary to that of his club, events have been judged prior to the real outcome coming out. We didn’t actually see what really happened. We only saw the TV footage, which shows it in a different light.

What’s your interpretation of what happened then?
My interpretation of the footage is that there is a lot of arguing going on down on the bench when Edin Dzeko comes off. They showed Carlos warm up during the first half with two other players. In the second half when they showed the bench, we didn’t see Carlos and they then showed that he and Nigel De Jong were warming up. He was warming up even as De Jong comes on. We then see him walk back to the bench, and as he’s walking back to the bench there’s a god-awful row between Roberto Mancini and Dzeko. We see this row carrying on and Carlos then sits down. We see this row continuing, we see the physical trainer is talking to Carlos, and Carlos then stands up to go towards somewhere. There is some more shouting and he sits right back down. So, that’s what we see from the video footage. And from then on we are going by what Mancini says.

Do you believe he refused to play?
I know Carlos in totally different light to most people in this room and around the world, since he was an 18-year-old boy. You can criticise him for anything, but one thing you can’t criticise him for is his commitment on the pitch, or for not wanting to play. There have been several times at Manchester City and throughout his career where he’s taken injections, played with swollen ankles or in situations when doctors have told him not to play. There was a situation at Corinthians where the medical department came to me before the Libertadores semi-final with River Plate and said “Carlos cannot play, he is not fit”. I then hear that there is a massive row going on and people were saying “You need to get down to the dressing room ASAP”. I go down and the coach says: “You’ve got to help me out. Carlos wants to kill the doctor.” He then played the full 90 minutes.

So you’re saying that this is a misunderstanding and he didn’t refuse to play?
This is my opinion that he didn’t refuse to play. Throughout his career he has been one who fights to play. He joined City when he had offers from Real Madrid and Manchester United. United gave him an offer, as did Madrid and City. He was one of the first players to join City’s new vision. It is a great vision. I have the honour of knowing Sheikh Mansour and sometimes that vision is not portrayed properly. Carlos was brought in to help and start that vision. So he feels very differently towards the club. He had a very intense feeling at end of his first season when they missed out on qualifying for the Champions League. He took that very personally. In the second season his performances on the pitch were outstanding.

There are a lot of issues around this. Carlos does speak English, but his English is not good enough to host a full-blown interview.

But did he say, as he was interpreted as saying, “I did not feel right to play, so I did not play”?
One of the biggest problems right after a game when questions are asked is that things get put out of context and if you don’t have a very professional interpreter then you have a problem. I speak both languages and I listened to the questions in English and the interpretation in Spanish. The interpretation was incorrect. Both questions and both of Carlos’s answers were misinterpreted. Geoff Shreeves says “What is the truth?”. Carlos says something like “the truth is, at this point in time, how am I going to be in a mental state to play?”. The interpreter then says something very different. The second question is Shreeves

Are you saying that whatever the outcome of the enquiry, he would want to stay at Manchester City?
Again, there is an investigation going on, and I don’t really want to speak about what Carlos does and doesn’t want to do.

Do you think he knows what he wants to do?
I think he feels that he has been judged before the case has been looked into. Manchester City are in a very difficult position, and Carlos is in a very difficult position. 

Wouldn’t it have been better to say “I’m sorry if this was the impression I gave to the manager”?
Just to clarify, I was not aware of the statement before he released it. But he did release a statement and it clearly said that it was a misunderstanding and he did apologise. If you look at the bench, it seems there was a misunderstanding with Zabaleta – and I’m not saying there was or wasn’t – but we should wait until the investigation has run its course and analyse its findings. And at that point both Carlos and Man City need to sit down and have a conversation.

Could the manager and player be reconciled again?
This is something for the two of them to work out. It’s a personal relationship between two people. You’ve seen this happen all through the summer with Fabregas, Nasri, Modric, the list goes on – those are just the high-profile names from throughout the summer. People handing in transfer requests, refusing to travel, refused to play – I think this is a problem in general. 

Are you actually saying [those players] refused to play?
Well, I can say that my opinion is that they refused to play, but that they refused to play in a different way. Those situations were handled in a different way; their managers and clubs handled them very differently.

So Roberto Mancini should’ve handled it a different way?
Roberto has his style of management, it’s very direct and totally different to Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger or Carlo Ancelotti. Fabregas had a big problem throughout the summer, Modric put in a transfer request and I think he didn’t play in Spurs’ first European game and it was reported that he didn’t want to play. Whether that’s true or not, we don’t know. Every manager and every club handles situations differently. Carlos’s situation has been handled in a different manner. Carlos and Roberto now have to deal with the manner in which it has been handled.

So is Carlos Tevez, as some people have suggested, easily lead? Or is he quite tough?
I think any person in the world that knows Carlos knows that he has a very strong opinion on everything. One thing he’s always said and reiterated all the time is that he resents the fact that people think he can be [easily lead]. He’s come up from the bottom and has reached the top of his game. He hasn’t done that by not being a very strong character. He’s a very, very strong independent character and if you speak to any of his teammates and managers – either current or past – they will tell you he’s a very different character to this.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Is football all about the players? Part 1 of 2

This week sees some of world football's top minds and most powerful decision makers come together at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge for the Leaders In Football summit. There are a number of intriguing talks on the agenda, with referee Pierluigi Collina, AS Roma president Tom DiBenedetto and the Secretary General of Qatar 2022 (that talk might be fun) among the speakers on various panel discussions.

However, it was the last talk of the two-day agenda that most caught my eye. Somewhat flippantly titled "It's the players that matter, stupid", it features a panel consisting of Jamie Carragher, Owen Hargreaves and Fabio Cannavaro.

"At the top level," says the blurb, "players and their coaches work under the most intense pressure in an environment where job security, even with a lengthy contract, often seems non-existent. Performances are assessed daily, fairly and unfairly by public and media alike as well as by employers. So what is it really like today at the sharp end of football under such scrutiny? And what do today’s heroes think will be tomorrow’s challenges?"

My immediate reaction to this is that I'd happily be under that sort of scrutiny if I was getting paid £80,000 a week (or £4.16 million pa). You can call me whatever you want for that sort of money. To my face. I'm pretty sure I'll get over it.

But is this attitude an overly dismissive one? Should we be more considerate to the pressure players are under in modern football, and consider the difficulties of taking to the field in peak mental and physical condition?

You imagine that Carragher – noted as one of the deeper thinkers currently playing the game, and a man who will surely make a decent fist of management when he hangs up his boots – will be quite forthright when he takes the mic. Players at the top level are fantastically rewarded for the job they do, and as a result have a duty to stay focused on helping their team while keeping themselves in prime physical condition. Club management will guide them along the way, but ultimately the player must push himself in trying to achieve his and the team's goals. Certainly it will be a surprise should such an uncompromising player pander for any sympathy.

Hargreaves could be a different story. His terrible luck with injuries must have pushed his mental strength to its very limit. How does it feel when every time you take to the field, you know the crowd and press are just waiting for the next innocuous challenge that puts you on the sidelines for another period of months. It will be fascinating to see what Hargreaves has to say about the last few years of his career. Does he think it's fair that the media have scrutinised his fitness so closely or has that just increased the mental anguish of being on the sidelines? Did it make him stronger or push him closer to thoughts of retirement?

As a World Cup-winning captain, Cannavaro reached the very peak of the game. He was also Fifa's World Player of the Year in 2006. Recently retired after a short spell playing in Dubai, he should be able to offer an interesting overseas perspective on life at the pinnacle of game. The English media are renowned for their continual hunger for stories, but Cannavaro has played for several top Italian sides as well as Real Madrid, so you'd imagine he knows what pressure is better than most. Certainly his time at Madrid would have been an eye-opening experience in terms of the club's intense relationship with the press.

So what will we learn from the panel? That footballers are sublimely gifted and should be protected from stresses and strains that could detract from their performance at all costs? Or will they instead concede that footballers at the highest level are handsomely paid and should "man up" and get on with doing something most people would dream to do? How do they see the nature of their job changing in years to come? It promises to be a fascinating discussion and one I'll report back on later in the week. (EDIT: make that 'later in the month'!)

In the meantime, do feel free to give your opinion on whether it is fair that footballers are placed under so much scrutiny today.

Edit 4/10/11: The Leaders In Football website has updated it's programme this week, with the panel now set to feature Ray Wilkins instead of Hargreaves. Not sure if that's definite or not; conference line-ups often seem to fluctuate until the last minute. Personally, I don't think this line-up will be quite as interesting as two current players and one recently retired World Cup winner, but we shall see. Also, I wonder why Hargreaves is no longer available?

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Connect 4! From Wimbledon to Wingate

Miscellaneous musings on four football matches in four days

Attending a match every day for four consecutive days is something I've never done before. I mean, it's a bit much, isn't it? It's when you start doing things like this that you have to ask yourself if you've gone a bit far with this whole being-really-into-football lark. Maybe there are other things in life?

Still, four games of football, including two new grounds for me – lovely. I wasn't doing anything else those days anyway. The four games I settled on, for a variety of reasons (largely to do with the fact that they were happening on those days), were as follows:

Saturday 3 Sept: AFC Wimbledon v Port Vale
Sunday 4 Sept: Hendon v Lewes
Monday 5 Sept: Ghana v Brazil
Tuesday 6 Sept: Wingate & Finchley v Met Police

My first port of call was AFC Wimbledon v Port Vale. I'm a season-ticket holder at Kingsmeadow despite being a Bournemouth fan (don't ask). Wimbledon are still getting over the novelty of playing league football again. Somehow turning up on a Saturday to see the Dons against Port Vale feels a world away from the Tamworths and Eastbourne Boroughs of last season. Port Vale. Even their name sounds comfortingly Football League-y.

Wimbledon's Luke Moore challenges
Vale's dangerous Rob Taylor.
(Photo: Port Vale FC)
The game starts and it very quickly becomes apparent which side is the experienced League outfit. Vale, including the largest footballer I've ever seen in the flesh – the beastly Clayton McDonald – are all over the hapless Dons, creating chance after chance. An absurd amount of near misses, goalmouth scrambles, woodwork smacks and desperate clearances ensue. During one scramble the balls pops out of the melee and sits up perfectly for an onrushing Vale midfielder. He catches it sweetly and it appears to be crashing into the net. Instead it smacks Dons full-back Sam Hatton right in the chops and rebounds away. "How are we not losing this?" we gasp.

Vale's left midfielder Rob Taylor is getting a lot of joy down his wing. Some wag in the crowd has been hollering at Dons manager Terry Brown throughout, with Taylor's persistent running with the ball the object of his ire.

Fan: "Oy! Tel! The No3 thinks it's his birthday!"
Brown: [turning round to address the fan] "Where the 'ell 'ave you come from all of a sudden?"
Fan: "I come from Wimbledon, where the f*** do you come from?"

The rest of the crowd are not impressed by this needless aggression towards their popular manager, and for a while you wonder if the fan is going to get lynched as assorted bigger blokes growl, glower and glare in his direction.

After surviving the initial onslaught the game seesaws around; 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, before Dons substitute Christian Jolley (who wasn't even in the squad until a late injury) rattles in an excellent winner in the fifth minute of injury time. Yeeeeeeeees! We all go absolutely ape. Brown pelts down the touchline Mourinho-style. It's incredibly harsh on Vale, but we'll take it.

The next day I wake up still buzzing from the day before. Going to another game is the only sensible course of action. Hendon v Lewes for Non-League Day gets the nod. Hendon are ground-sharing with Wembley FC at Vale Farm these days. There I meet Stuart Fuller, non-league blogging legend and author of A Fan's Guide: European Football Grounds. He's a part-owner of Lewes, who were relegated from the Conference South to the Ryman (i.e. Isthmian) Premier last season. "Is it vital to bounce straight back this season?" I ask, but after a couple of seasons battling the drop he's shaking his head. "You just want to see them win really," he says. You sense he'd only want Lewes winning promotion if they were going to be a force in the tier above. Winning more games than you lose in the Ryman suits Fuller just fine for now.

Glancing over the teamsheet, I notice a couple of famous names on the two substitute benches: Danny Dyer (Hendon) and Lewis Hamilton (Lewes). Unfortunately I fail to spot either the F1 driver nor the, erm, acclaimed thesp. I assume there must have been some last-minute ringers or something.

The teams walk out – somewhat incongruously – to Johnny Cash's 'Ring Of Fire'. One man claps. There are 20-30 Lewes fans behind their goal and they've early reason to cheer as Lewes score with their first attack.

The playwright and comic Patrick Marber (another Lewes owner) is among their number behind the goal. "Patrick, those are the newest looking trainers I've ever seen," says Fuller of his co-owner's shiny footwear. "Nice, aren't they," Marber grins, before returning his gaze to what's shaping up to be an agreeable afternoon.

A chance for Lewes, and a
famous arch in the background
All smiles disappear a few minutes later though as Hendon equalise. Lewes concede a free-kick after their keeper takes a stride out of his area before kicking it out of his hands. The goalie presumably has his mind on other things, because he then chooses to stand behind his wall for the free-kick and Hendon's Elliott Godfrey rifles the ball into the empty space.

A sub-par, chemically pint of Kronenbourg at half-time is swiftly necked, and my mood is not improved by the fact that they've run out of chips! I'd seen folk with some before kick-off and those babies were crinkle-cut. This is a hammer blow. Second half better be good.

And it is good. Lewes play some especially nice stuff, enjoy the bulk of possession, but can't quite convert their dominance into a commanding lead. Their tricky substitute Christian Nanetti catches the eye, and seemed to have more guile than a lot of players you see at this level. He wasn't quite on the same wavelength as his teammates, but certainly one to look out for if you're a Ryman League fan.

There's a decidedly iffy tackle from Hendon's Aaron Morgan on the Lewes keeper that earns him a straight red. Couple more goals and the game finishes in a 2-2 draw, although Lewes probably should have won on the balance of play.

As the teams trudge off, inexplicably, the theme from Deliverance plays. This adds a surreal quality to the end of the game handshakes among the players. Oddities aside though, an enjoyable game and an excellent advert for non-league football.

Monday evening I head off to the Ghana v Brazil friendly at Craven Cottage. A belting glass of a dark beer called Espresso in the Bricklayer's Arms near Putney Bridge sets us up nicely, but we have an absolute nightmare picking up our tickets after arriving at the ground about ten minutes before kick-off.

Fulham's shambolic ticket collection system has resulted in a rather disturbing crush of people building up. I've blogged about this worrying situation elsewhere on this site, so I won't repeat it here. But suffice to say we were not best pleased - and more than a little ruffled - once we eventually took our seats in the 32nd minute. Just as referee Mike Dean was sending off Ghana's Opare for an incident we didn't even see. Thanks Fulham.

A packed Craven Cottage. Just a
shame it took so long to get in
The half finishes in lively fashion though, as Brazil turn their man advantage into a one-goal lead – Leandro Damiao notching his first international goal. Ronaldinho's looking impressive and Neymar's off-the-ball movement is in serious danger of causing the Ghana's centre-backs ice-white shorts to turn another colour entirely.

A brief half-time chat with footballing Twitter stalwarts Jamie Cutteridge and Ryan 'The Football Project' Keaney, and then back to my seat. Well, a different seat actually. The people who had wrongly been sitting in ours when we arrived had been persuaded to move during the interval.

The second half saw more of the same – Brazil on top and looking to entertain, Ghana steadfast in their defending but hamstrung in attack by the lack of bodies. Ghanaian goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey – unknown to me until that night – had a storming second half, making two world-class saves from a Ronaldinho free-kick and a Pato header.

But the real stars were the Ghana fans, who were in excellent voice and accompanied by a lively, tuneful band of musicians. If they were that good in defeat, it's just a pity Ghana didn't get them a goal. The noise would have been audible in Accra.

Three down, one to go. Day 4 saw yours truly schlepp all the way up to West Finchley tube (25 stops from home) for Wingate & Finchley v Metropolitan Police at the Harry Abrahams Stadium. My friend and former housemate, the travel writer Rob Crossan, was good enough to accompany me. Bleak footballing outposts have long been a favourite of his after a youth very much well spent on the terraces of Wrexham's Racecourse Ground.

"Who was Harry Abrahams?" I ask one wind-beaten fellow who looks as if he's probably here every week. "Dunno mate, I'm a Hendon fan. Just fancied a game." Bizarre little coincidence to meet a Hendon fan just two days after my first visit to their place. Anyway, turns out that Abrahams was a long-standing fan of the club - and you have to applaud a team that names its ground after one its fans. The ground itself has an interesting story too. And not to leave out Met Police, their club secretary is Tony Brooking, brother of Sir Trev. Wonder if he ever swears?

Wingate & Finchley v Met Police;
howling winds not pictured
The crowd tonight looks to be about fifty. Turns out it's actually 75 (do they include caterers, bar staff and non-playing substitutes?), but still very much not a 'win gate', if you'll pardon the pun. The home team score on 13 minutes and it's one-way traffic for the rest of the half. Wingate play some scintillating stuff; one or two moves wouldn't have looked out of place at Craven Cottage the previous evening. I can't help but wonder why more people aren't turning out to watch them. The stadium is certainly set up to welcome far bigger crowds than this.

A half-time pint in the clubhouse, a weary chuckle at how tedious the England v Wales games looks, and then back for what we hope will be more sexy football.

The second half is abominably crap.

What was already a strong breeze has turned into something the weathermen like to give you some forewarning about. Rob starts to roll a cigarette and is just about to lick the rolling paper when he glances down and sees that there's no longer any tobacco sitting in it. It's nice that some divine force wants Rob to quit smoking, but did they really have to ruin the second half in the process? Gone is the sexy football, instead we now have workmanlike grit, occasional bursts of hearty swearing and a pretty limited Met Police side coming strongly back into the game. I can faintly hear some reggae in the background.

"Is that someone's ringtone?" I say to Rob. "Or have one of these blokes brought a stereo in?" We listen closely, trying to pinpoint the sound. It's coming from the Tannoy! Why are they still playing music during the game? Is it a subliminal attempt to convince us that things are still as rosy as the first half? It ain't working.

Wingate score on the counter, then Met Police pull one back and proceed to attack for the rest of the game. The Tannoy's playing 'Everybody Hurts' now. Damn right. I'm hurtin' and I want my bed. Wingate dig in and cling on to the three points. Can we go now?

We slip into a semi-comatose stupor on the endless Northern line trundle back south of the river. Four games in four days - it's been grand, but I don't think I'll be doing it again in a hurry.

Ever completed a footballing Connect 4? The aforementioned Jamie Cutteridge tells me he did six days - SIX! - last season. If you've ever done a run of several consecutive footballing days, feel free to tell us about it in the comments below. Oh, and if you really want detailed reports of the actual match action in the games I attended, you can find them on more serious websites here, here, here and here

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

A worrying crush at Ghana v Brazil

Last night Fulham's Craven Cottage stadium hosted the international friendly between Ghana and Brazil. As friendlies go, this was a particularly enticing prospect, with the likes of Ronaldinho and Neymar on show to people who perhaps haven't had chance to see them play live before. Not to mention chance for London's sizable Ghanaian community to see the Black Stars in action against the most famous international team in the world.

It was a good game. However, I am extremely surprised that most of the talk in today's media is about events on the pitch and the cracking atmosphere in the stands. Both of these things are true, but far more pressing is the potential disaster that could have occurred outside the stadium pre- (and even post-) kick-off.

The crux of the problem was that lots of people had ordered tickets in advance for the Ghana end of the stadium (largely the Putney Stand), for collection at the ground. And by "lots" I mean hundreds. These tickets were being dished out from two small hatches (surnames A-L and M-Z). Said hatches were manned by four people at most. The process of dishing out tickets was astonishingly slow, and there was virtually no police or security presence managing the crowd until it became evident that a significant crush was starting to occur.

As kick-off approached, it became clear that we would not be witnessing the moment. In fact, we did not enter the stadium until the 32nd minute after an exhausting amount of queuing, jostling and trying to reason with club staff and security. We weren't the only ones. People were still coming in as half-time approached. The first thing we saw as we walked in was the referee showing a red card to a Ghana player – a key turning point in the game. I've no idea what it was for. 

This excellent eyewitness account by Headers & Volleys does a superb job of describing the widespread disorganisation and disarray outside and inside the stadium that hundreds of people experienced. (I also noticed a dismissive attitude towards the fans from several staff members.) I urge you to read this piece from start to finish, because every single point the article makes is important. This passage of text is particularly salient:

"With such shocking organisation and ridiculously poor planning, with another, more aggressive group of fans, the outcome could have been drastically different in the stands yesterday night. Thankfully for everyone, the Ghanaian fans just wanted to sing and dance."

It is to the Ghana fans tremendous credit that they remained largely calm and composed during last night's farce. Yes, there was some frustrated shouting, a few arguments here and there. But I didn't see anybody who had genuinely lost control. What I did see was a few frightened looks on people's faces, and one or two small children clutching their father's hand in the crowds by the ticket collection windows. There were three of us in our group, so myself and one other managed to worm our way out of the crowd, leaving the other to queue. It seemed the only course of action, lest two extra bodies contribute to the problem that was building.

Thankfully, as far as I'm aware, nobody got hurt. But I can't believe I've even felt the need to write a piece like this today. I'm stunned that Headers & Volleys have had to document at such length what a complete and utter shambles occurred. But it's to their great credit that they have, and I sincerely hope that Fulham FC treat their complaints with the seriousness they deserve. One of my party is also writing to complain.

And yet, perhaps we should have seen this coming? A couple of years ago I went to a European tie at Craven Cottage versus Roma. A similar – albeit much smaller scale – queuing debacle took place that night. One that you'd file under "irritating" rather than "deeply concerning". I wrongly assumed this must have been a one-off and that the club would learn the lessons from it.

However, not so. Here's Two Footed Tackle's Gary Andrews, with an account of a Europa League tie featuring NSI Runavik that he attended at the Cottage: "I arrived about 15 minutes before kick-off to find absolute chaos outside the ticket collection booth – just two people on the desk of lots of people queuing. They'd sent out tickets for various surnames with assorted staff and stewards, and people were having to find the relevant person."

He then goes on to describe a situation which is similar to that experienced by Headers & Volleys and also by my group last night: "There was a bit of a crush to get in and we missed the start of the game. When we eventually got into the stand there were people already in our seats and they had tickets for the same seats. Fortunately there were several seats a few rows forward, so we quickly snaffled these. It was a bit of a free-for-all and a bit chaotic," says Andrews.

What has become apparent today then is that this was a problem that has happened before. It remains a disaster waiting to happen. Has English football learned nothing at all from Hillsborough and other football crush scenes? Aren't there supposed to be security measures and protocols in place to prevent all this antiquated nonsense these days?

Several things need to happen in the wake of Monday night:
  • Craven Cottage must not stage another one-off game of this nature until it has completely overhauled and modernised its ticketing system.
  • Authorities must meet with officials from the club to learn lessons. This is a bare minimum to avoid a possible disaster in future, especially given Fulham's presence in the Europa League group stage. Can we be sure that fans of Twente, Odense and Wisla Krakow will respond as calmly to a potential crush as the Ghana fans did last night? Are Fulham seriously just going to wait and see how it pans out? The police were rather slow to the scene last night too. Who was in charge of their operations last night? These questions need to be asked.
  • The Football Supporters Federation must take a close look at what happened too. I hope that they can use their influence to ensure Headers & Volleys' complaint is treated with the gravitas it merits.
The concern is that, while the Evening Standard have reported a (shockingly dismissive) series of quotes from Fulham FC today, it's only bloggers that have properly documented events at present. Will the powers that be take heed of the warnings or will this situation be allowed to continue until there is a tragic injury – or worse?

One can only hope that weeks, months or years from today Fulham FC and the police are not looking back at Headers & Volley's blog and thinking "Why didn't we learn the lessons from all of this?".

For now, my only advice to those thinking of buying tickets for a match at Craven Cottage would be: get your tickets posted in advance, arrive early and keep a cool head if there's somebody in your seat when you get to it.

Fulham have not heeded the danger signs that have been abundantly clear in the past. This is surely either pure neglect or a refusal to spend money on correcting the problem. How much did that Michael Jackson statue cost again?

They simply have to act this time.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Stoke. What the hell?

I've developed a grudging respect for Stoke City, even if they do cause me to giggle. A few curious thoughts on the latest chapter in their recent history...

As I was walking to work this morning, the absurdity of Stoke City's new-found abilities in the transfer market – the most recent of which being the ability to successfully sign Peter Crouch – was churning around in my head.

How had Stoke City - STOKE CITY - managed to sign a player with such an excellent international goalscoring record? A player who acquitted himself very well in the Champions League last season. For twelve million actual English poundlings. How had this come to be?

I can only assume that some sort of kidnap-style siege took place, with Crouch told in no uncertain terms that if he wanted to be enjoying Abbey Clancy's wobbly bits again any time soon, he'd better chuffing well sign the bit of paper.

As I lost myself in these stupid thoughts, I wondered what Pulis might have said to Crouch the moment the ink was dry. I imagine it was something along the lines of "Aha! There's no going back now, lad. It's too late. You're mine, all mine."

I don't know what was on my Cornflakes this morning, but I ended up picturing Pulis as the sinister, wife-collecting circus master Pappa Lazarou from The League of Gentlemen. A disturbing image and one you'll doubtless not want to visualise if you can help it...

Peter Crouch pictured at his unveiling with Stoke boss Tony Pulis
Oops. Sorry.

(That's the Photoshopper Of The Year 2011 award in the bag, I'd say)

I genuinely laughed out loud when I saw the news of Crouch's signing. I don't know why it tickled me so, but it did. There's just something very funny about Stoke and when they sign really famous players, as they seem to be doing with increasing regularity, it provokes an involuntary response from me along the lines of "Haha, him? Stoke? Really? What's he doing joining them, the silly clot!"

But then this is Stoke's fourth season in the Premier League. Those multiple millions in TV rights start to stack up after a while, until eventually a chairman realises – to quote the Blur song – "Whoops, I've got a lot of money" and starts wondering how he might spend it. (Everton fans, I know you're scratching your heads at this juncture. We don't quite understand it either.)

So having stockpiled cash for a while, suddenly Stoke have splurged on Crouch, Wilson Palacios, Cameron Jerome, Matthew Upson and Jonathan Woodgate. All of a sudden, a squad already containing some very good players starts to look something of a menace. Add in the Premier League's noisiest fans, gleefully singing themselves hoarse to the tune of 'Delilah' for reasons unknown, and you've got one heck of a tricky away day on your hands.

You sense Pulis has long fantasised at the prospect of having someone as tall as Crouch for Rory Delap to aim his Exocet long-throws towards. How many teams will crumble as Delap launches repeated missiles towards Crouch, Kenwyne Jones, Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross? How high could Stoke finish in the Premier League this season? Fourth? It is a terrifying prospect. Yet, if they managed it, I'd fall about laughing. It's just funny.

Since Stoke qualified for the Europa League by reaching the FA Cup final, a lot of the cynicism towards them has turned into good will. It's as if people are thinking, "Well, I don't like what you do, but I have to take my hat off and admire what you've been able to achieve."

Even I've softened. I've never had any beef with the club, but I've spent two-thirds of my life not being able to stand Tony Pulis. He was a pretty terrible manager of my team (Bournemouth) in the 1990s and tried to get us playing physical, long ball football too. As a team with strong passing traditions, we never took to it and were glad when he was gone. But he's built on his philosophy as he's gone along, learning from his mistakes and turning Stoke into a formidable opponent for any team. Perhaps the most commonly cited cliché in football last season was the one that goes "Yeah, Messi's good, but could he do it on a wet Wednesday night at the Brittannia?" The humour's worn thin now but, still, praise indeed.

I have to admit that I have a certain amount of admiration for Tony Pulis now. I'll never entirely like him, but I can't help but admire him a bit. Lots of us support sides that play pretty football, but would we swap it all for the season those noisy boys at the Britannia will enjoy this season with the squad they've assembled? Not all of us would, but there'd certainly be a good few takers.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Football League 2011/12 previews

I've been getting involved with offering opinions for other people's blogs again, this time helping out with League One previews.

First off, I contributed to the collaboration between two of the finest Football League blogs around: The Seventy Two and The Two Unfortunates. They've put together an epic, sprawling season preview PDF for all three Football League divisions. This is one heck of an achievement and applaud them for it. My simple contribution was to offer my thoughts for the AFC Bournemouth entry.

But whichever league club you follow, I thoroughly recommend that you take a leaf through their preview.

Following on from that, I've also taken part in Two Footed Tackle's 'Five Go Predicting' feature, in which five supporters of League One clubs give their thoughts on how things will go in the third tier this season. It's interesting to note that there's a certain amount of consensus reached - especially when it comes to Huddersfield's chances. Here's the article

Monday, 25 July 2011

A rant about one of the dirtiest players in football history: Kevin Muscat

Another guest blog from me this week. The chaps at Magic Spongers have been publishing an interesting series of rants about the unlovable protagonists of the football world in recent weeks. When they asked me if I'd be interested in taking part, there was only one man I wanted to write about.

Kevin Muscat was a solid full-back who has enjoyed a long career in football. Sadly, he is cursed by his tendency to be overcome with angst and fury, and has made some absolutely appalling challenges on opponents during his career - even curtailing one Premier League player's career.

Here's the piece over at the Magic Spongers site. Do leave a comment if it provokes a response, and please share it with anyone else who may find it interesting. You should follow Magic Spongers on Twitter too: @magicspongers.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The disappointment hedge

Here follows an attempt at explaining the logic behind a type of football betting that few of us admit publicly to doing - betting against your own team. I'm taking the plunge and admitting that I've been experimenting with it during the football season just past. So is it cowardly or just common sense?

I feel slightly mucky. I was in the bookie’s earlier and now I’ve won £50. Fifty lovely pounds that I didn’t have before. Yet I am wallowing in a state I might melodramatically describe as self-loathing. I feel dissatisfied, glum. 

“But you’ve won £50 – presumably on the outcome of a football match that you correctly predicted the outcome of?” I hear you cry. Well, not quite. I didn’t call anything correctly. I didn't see anything coming. I didn't spot a value bet. I just bet on one team winning – the team that I actually wanted to lose. Welcome to the concept of The Disappointment Hedge.

Sometimes when I tell people about The Disappointment Hedge they look at me with a mixture of bewilderment and something close to malice. I wonder if they might be about to knock me to the ground and present me with their interpretation of how my ribs ought to be assembled. My crime? Betting against my own team – or any team I have an emotional attachment to. Profiting from your own team’s misfortune is, in some people’s eyes, not really on. It’s seen as weasely, sneaky, a grotty thing to do. 

Still, fifty quid, though. Fifty quid in my pocket. A free night out. What a git.

Other people – more rational people, such as women for example – ask me to explain why I do this. When I’ve told them about The Disappointment Hedge they nod, shrug and say something like “Well, I can see why you do this, but it doesn’t seem like a lot of fun. It's not really in the spirit of things.”

I began to experiment with The Disappointment Hedge last season and found it definitely did take the edge off a defeat to some extent - enough for it to be worth doing. But that’s exactly why it feels dirty. It’s not good for the soul. My fellow fans (be it club, country or some continental side that I’ve inexplicably developed a penchant for) are hurting. Our team needed to win today really. It wasn’t desperate, but three points wouldn’t half have been useful. The rest of your team's fans have had their evening ruined, possibly their weekend or even their whole month. Meanwhile, I’m just as peeved but I’ve got £50 as well. Which position would I rather be in?

You have to be careful with this kind of hedging. You don’t want to mess with your head. I like £50 as much as the next man (unless the next man is Bill Drummond), but give me a belting victory for my team over the cash every single time. Getting your hedge just right is a balancing act, and one that is dependent on your own personal circumstances. Bet too much and it’ll sting a bit when your beloved team win - and you don't want it to interfere with the joy of victory. But if you don't wager enough then your trifling profits will almost seem to mock you as you try to sulk off another defeat.

Some people have said to me that they wish they cared enough about their own side that they needed to have this kind of financial crash mat to ease the pain. But they tend to be people who don’t go to games regularly. If you’re spending money on your match ticket, your travel, beer, a burger, a programme - that's a fair bit of money. Given your initial outlay, then, I present you with three pre-match possibilities:

Possibility 1: All that money you're spending - I'm going to double it I'm afraid. But don't be gloomy; I'm guaranteeing that your team will win.
Possibility 2: You're going to have a wasted day watching your team capitulate, but you will make a fat profit in the process. 
Possibility 3: Your team huffs and puffs its way to a mildly frustrating draw - but today hasn't cost you a penny. Your winnings cover your costs. 

Therein lies the secret to perfectly balanced disappointment hedging. If I was a much wealthier man than I am, I think that's how I'd weight my bets every time. We win - it costs me double. We lose - I make a large profit. We draw - I'm breaking even. 

Here's an example using a fixture listed on Betfair from (in the interests of search engine optimisation) the Úrvalsdeild, that's the Icelandic top flight to you and me. It's the big one: Breidablik v Fram. Give it a click so that you can actually read it.

An example of The Disappointment Hedge in action.
Let's imagine a mad-keen Breidablik fan. His team are at home today to lowly Fram. Let's suppose his match ticket, travel, beer, food and all other matchday expenses have cost him £40. In the example you can see the punter is about to bet £8.50 on Fram to win. Fram are pretty rubbish so he's getting a fairly long price of 6.2 on Betfair (which is roughly 5/1 in fractional odds). This bet would net him £44.20 profit if it came off. At the same time, he risks £31.78 that Breidablik will NOT win, ie. he "lays" them. [When you place a "lay" bet on a betting exchange like Betfair, you say how much you want to win, not how much you want to bet. Betfair then does the maths and tells you how much you are liable to lose if you're wrong. This liability amount temporarily leaves your account while the bet is pending.] And so in this example either a draw or a Fram win will see him collect £48.90 on this individual bet. 

So the upshot of his two bets can be seen by looking at the numbers in red (potential loss) and green (potential profit) in the example. If Breidablik win, then he's lost £40. He's doubled the cost of his day from £40 to £80, but he doesn't care too much because his team won. If they draw then he's won his £40 back and had a free day out. And if those pesky Fram blighters go and ruin his day, he will at least have the cushion of £93.10 winnings (or £53.10 pure profit if you allow for the £40 cost of the day out).

However, that's a fictional example. Now back to reality. Due to not being wealthy enough to just throw money around like it doesn't matter, the prospect of a win costing me double isn't usually a viable option. It's then when the hedge gets awkward, the crash mat noticeably thinner. You have to hedge it so that the joy of your team winning is always much greater than any profit you stand to make. I'm not suggesting you try to reach some kind of equilibrium between your wealth and the emotions football generates in us - that would be psychologically a lot more messed up. Hedging is about breaking your fall to some extent. And yet it remains a taboo among football bettors - even when you know that betting against your team is the smart move, we certainly wouldn't go around on match day telling everyone that we'd done it.

Ultimately, it's just as well that I'm not a wealthy man, because I’m a bit out of pocket from this season’s hedges. And that’s because the two teams I care most about had good seasons. So do I care about the money? Not really, no. It’s been a joy to watch my teams this season, and they’ve brought me pleasure infinitely greater than the amount of money I’ve lost. 

How much money would it take to make defeat for your team hurt less?
Will I do the same next year, now one of my teams has been promoted and perhaps won’t win as many games? I haven’t decided yet. If I do decide to stop, it’ll have to be cold turkey. No point doing it some weeks and not others – it'll only add to the annoyance when my team gets a royal spanking from some bunch of relegation-threatened no-hopers. 

One thing is for sure though: if I do keep hedging then I'll get a separate betting account for it. I'm proud of the modest profits I've generated in recent years through non-hedging bets - the wagers for which I didn't have a vested interest in the outcome. It's a shame to fritter away your hard-earned betting profits just because the team you support is doing well. I'd keep the two things separate, and (obviously) only hedge with money I could afford to lose. 

As a relative newcomer to disappointment hedging, I haven't fully explored the range of its possibilities. I imagine the world of in-play betting can push your hedges to a level of sickness that I half hope I'll never get involved with. One-nil up on your biggest rivals with less than two minutes of stoppage time to play? Worried how you'll feel if they muck it up? Risk a tiny amount of money on the draw then. You don't care if you lose the money, you just want the ref to blow his whistle. But if that dreaded equaliser comes - your impressive financial haul will soften the blow. And that's all it's there to do - soften the blow. After all, it's only money, it's not as important as football. You all know what Bill Shankly famously said about football, but something Einstein once said about money and possessions fits quite nicely with my attitude to the disappointment hedge.  

“Many of the things you can count, don't count. 
Many of the things you can't count, really count.
- Albert Einstein

Maybe applying this to betting is not a responsible attitude during a recession, but I've no particular regrets from the reasonably modest sum of money I've lost dabbling with The Disappointment Hedge this season. Despite my simplified illustration earlier, I'm not trying to cover my costs when I hedge, I'm simply giving myself a crash-mat that is just thick enough to numb the pain. 


So there we are - The Disappointment Hedge. You’re welcome to try it out yourself. But if your team wins 15 games on the spin and you bankrupt yourself, don’t come crying to me. And if they lose 15 on the bounce then you can drink yourself silly on the profits. Just don’t expect to like yourself much in the process as you stuff your pockets full of money. Like Einstein hints at, money doesn't matter anything like as much as the important things in life - like football. But if football's going to kick you square in the goolies, you might as well get a few beer tokens out of it.

Ever dabbled with hedging? Do leave a comment below if you'd care to share how you felt afterwards. Ever surprised yourself by realising in the process of a hedged bet that the money meant more to you than you thought it did? Or the exact opposite - that it meant nothing to you in the face of success on the pitch. I'm closer to the latter than the former, but not to the extent I'd want to encounter any sort of financial difficulties as a result. What about you?

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

An imagined meeting of Chuck Blazer and his informant on Jack Warner's pirate ship

Blazer was stunned by what his informant told him

Down in the bowels of his ship, the Concacaf Cutlass, Cap'n Jack Warner smiled as he plotted and schemed what he was going to do with all these bags of money. Little did he know, however, up on the poop deck and disguised as a rum merchant, a former accomplice of Cap'n Jack's was deep in conversation with the ship's mandatory parrot.

Parrot informant (whispering): So what do you want to know?
Chuck Blazer: What have you got for me? It's taken ages to grow this disguise, so it'd better be worth it. I used to look just like Michael Douglas, you know?
Parrot: Well, he's down there now, counting the money.
CB: What money? This sounds juicy.
Parrot: The money that was meant for the children.
CB: Which children?
Parrot: The Children of FIFA™.
CB: *gasps*
Parrot: Oh yes.
CB: Not the ones that FIFA pledged to help? But I thought all the money was put into brown bags and loaded onto the Good Ship FIFA™ to set sail for FIFA's Worthy Oil-Rich Partner Countries™ where it would be invested in developing football for poor and needy kids?
Parrot: It was.
CB: So how's Cap'n Jack got his hands on it?
Parrot: The Concacaf Cutlass intercepted the ship.
CB: No!
Parrot: It was swift and bloodless. Those manning the Good Ship FIFA™ got their cut, and all parties agreed to say that it was the Somalians. But it wasn't. It was Cap'n Jack.
CB: This is incredible. With this knowledge I can finally report back to Uncle Sepp and we can nail this rotter.
Parrot: I'll be expecting to get Jérôme Valcke's job in return for this information, you know, as well as $5 million in a lump-sum payment.
CB: That won't be a problem, I'll sort it with Sepp. That's not double standards, right?
Parrot: No, no it isn't. Great. Transfer it to my Mastercard account please.
CB: I'm afraid we only deal with Visa. They're a Special Friends Forever Key Partner™ you see?
Parrot: Was that a veiled dig at Valcke? I'm not sure all the readers will get it.
CB: Mmm. I'm increasingly doubting whether they're finding the Warner/pirate comparison amusing too.
Parrot: So what's the point of this blog then?
CB: Good question.
Parrot: I might go now. I think the problem with this post is that most people are more interested in Sepp trying to nail his rival Bin Hammam for corruption. It looks a bit silly on Sepp's part really doesn't it. I mean, come on! Meanwhile Warner's something of a side story.
CB: Yes, but it's not as easy to peg a visual gag on Bin Hammam as this was. Plus I only had a lunch break and I still need to buy a sandwich.
Parrot: Nobody's reading this now anyway. Just go.
CB: Yeah, I should probably go and sit looking brilliant in the front row of a major football summit or something...

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

PRESS RELEASE: Narrow The Angle retires from international football

Narrow The Angle delivered his news to a gathering of
England fans in Trafalgar Square this lunchtime.
10 May 2011 (London, UK) – An open letter from Narrow The Angle to the FA and Fabio Capello

Dear The FA,

After much soul-searching, I have decided to retire from international football.

After being consistently overlooked by a succession of England managers – despite some average-to-patchy form for my local pub side, for whom I have contributed a less-than-dazzling 11 goals in 60 games – I have decided to focus on my club game and withdraw my availability for international selection in the future. I hope that in time you will accept and understand my decision.

I realise this may come as a surprise, given that I am currently uncapped, but since another footballing no-mark like Ben Foster has retired from international football today, I feel it's the right moment to join this trendy bandwagon and free up extra time to concentrate on other commitments, including online poker and drinking. I also wanted to get there before Shaun Wright-Phillips.

You may remember that I wrote to you in 2008 stating that I was considering my international future then. This was in response to the devastating events of 8 September 2008, when the football world was left reeling after the twin international retirements of both Paul Parry (Wales) and Lee McCulloch (Scotland) on the same day – two gargantuan blows to future World Cups and European Championships in anyone's book. Tempted as I was to make it a hat-trick that day, I reconsidered after scoring a goal for the pub team the same evening that the opposition captain described not only as "alright", but also "quite good".

However, the best part of three more years has elapsed and still no call-up has been forthcoming. It's time to go out with my head held high.

I would request that the media respect my privacy at this time, and that the press do not launch any kneejerk campaigns calling for my immediate selection to the squad. I have made my decision and will stand by it.

Narrow The Angle

PS - Carlton Cole, you might want to join me? Anyone else?


Bournemouth in the League One playoffs.

Without really courting it, I seem to have become one of the go-to guys in the blogosphere for comments about AFC Bournemouth. I've done a couple of interviews this week, firstly with The Seventy Two, an excellent site that covers all 72 Football League clubs, and secondly with the Peterborough United Football Blog, who wanted to hear from fans of the other three clubs in the playoffs.

Do have a look. Whatever happens in the playoffs, it's been an incredible two years to be a Bournemouth fan.

Monday, 9 May 2011

My Favourite XI

The chaps at Two Footed Tackle have been running a popular 'My Favourite XI' series in recent months. I've been thoroughly enjoying them, but couldn't resist lowering the tone slightly with my own crackpot effort. If you fancy a read, here's a link: My Favourite XI.

And when you've finished, perhaps take a look in the archive at some of the efforts from people who approached the exercise more seriously than I did.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

This is football: Hackney Marshes

The slight fuzziness of this image may or may not be caused by
all the Deep Heat in the atmosphere. (Photo: Paul Flannery)

A damp squib of a Sunday. That fine rain – the kind that slowly saturates – is coming down like it can't quite be bothered. The famous Hackney Marshes football fields can be heard well before they are seen. A shrill blast of a referee's whistle; the distant noise of men versus boys blends into constant hubbub. 

Over the River Lee and suddenly there is football everywhere. Everywhere. Clusters of players chase balls in packs. The noises become more distinct from each other. A call for a pass, supportive applause and a variety of moans, grumbles and yelps of pain. "Come on! What's happened to our shape?" shouts a captain with a rip in his sock. 

Every garish team strip imaginable graces the dozens of pitches here, from a speedy bunch of lads in neon green to a lardy, angry mob kitted out in black and mauve. "Set me!" bellows a striker who's just given his marker the slip. He is not set. There are gestures.

Such wholesome recreation relieves the gloom of the surrounding area. Grim, grey towerblocks pepper the horizon. Huge pylons and cables criss-cross the perimeter of the marsh. Jumbo jets pass silently overhead, occasionally concealed by the swirling charcoal-coloured clouds. An imposing gas works in the middle distance looms over the trees, adding yet another eyesore. A murder of crows lurk in a radical, lop-sided 2-1-6 formation on an empty pitch. Their opponents (presumably seagulls) do not appear to have turned up and one solitary magpie won't do. For a start there's the clash of kits. The Olympics may be coming to town but still, this ain't exactly Disneyland.

It is, however, just like the Premier League in a lot of ways. We still see the flashy white boots, the outrageous hairstyles and the pre-rehearsed goal celebrations, but it's much more real. What these games lack in pristine playing surfaces and roaring crowds they more than make up for in determination, entertainment value and good old-fashioned muddy chaos. 

Mud, a strong breeze, scenic pylons: what more do you want?
(Photo: BBC World Service)
The tradition of 40-year-old men with beer guts working off their hangovers here is starting to die out. Most present are reasonably fit and take their football pretty seriously. The minority of portly pint-guzzlers stand out markedly as their shirts stretch over flabby bellies. This seems to apply to goalkeepers in particular. Some of the cuddly custodians on show can barely squeeze into their Spall jerseys.

Back to the action and the neon greens break swiftly into attack. Their red-and-white-striped opponents chase back gamely but to no avail as the onrushing striker finishes with aplomb. [Always wanted to use that word in a piece.] His jubilant team-mates yelp with delight and punch the air. The scorer is mobbed and soon there's big bundle of them atop him. E9's WAG equivalents grimace at the prospect of washing out all that mud as their high heels sink into the quagmire. The stripes conduct a brief but sweary post-mortem and roll up their sleeves ready for the kick-off. Revenge is swift. They go straight down the other end and score. This time we are treated to a brief jig around the corner flag as number 11 wiggles his hips in the direction of, well, nobody, before he too disappears under a swarm of stripes.

On the adjoining pitch, a slim winger with a flamboyant French accent stands – hands on hips – demanding a pass. A team-mate duly obliges but where is the Gallic flair we have come to expect from the French? Where is the va va voom? His legs get tangled in a mess and he runs the ball out of play. His colleagues exchange glances in a manner that suggests this happens often.

No, I don't know what's happening here either, though the
game, enjoyably, is between FC Bertoli and Kings Hell Cats.
(Photo: 'phatboysim', Flickr)
Walking a little further down, a very combative game is taking place. Challenges are flying in, tempers are fraying and nobody has any time on the ball. A man in red who seems to be made entirely out of mud attempts a sideways pass to a foppish blond team-mate. The pass is woefully underhit and the team-mate gets clattered by an opponent. Mud-man’s shoulders slump as his peers offer some choice words. “That was a hospital pass,” says one. “He’s just killed himself going for that ball,” yells another. Thankfully, the blond is not dead and gingerly extracts himself from the sodden turf. 

Some games are finishing. Whistles sound, teams shake hands and winners dash off to the adulation of an imagined crowd. Losers adopt a familiar trudge as they gather up their kit and head for the pub. One unlucky soul has to go and retrieve the goal nets which have been stuck up with masking tape. Many a strip of coloured tape decorates most of the posts, a memento of games gone by. Half-time orange segments lie strewn about the pitchside, every drop of sustenance sucked out. An empty packet of Marlboro Lights lies inches behind a goalmouth. Clearly one particular stopper had an easy time of it today.

From the changing rooms wafts the scent of Deep Heat and the clank of studs on concrete. They’ll all be back next week too. The particularly keen might even have cleaned their boots.

Pre-match meal or half-time energy boost? (Photo: Ben Dylan)
While I'm loathe to give major sports apparel manufacturers any more advertising than they need, this mid-1990s advert features famous Premier League players turning out for pub teams on Hackney Marshes, which gives you a glimpse, albeit heavily stylised, into what it's like down 'Ackney Marshes. It also features one of the greatest intro moments you'll see... "Shuut oop!"

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Bombed out! The thrill of surprise omissions

There's something terribly dramatic about a key player getting unexpectedly dropped by his manager. The more shocking it is, the closer the bond between manager and player, the louder the audible gasp in the stadium when the teams are read out – the longer they live in the memory. This article looks at the men whose dreams were unexpectedly crushed when their manager jettisoned them at the last minute, and the men chosen to replace them...

Perhaps the daddy of all droppings, this. Everyone remembers the moment Sir Alex Ferguson bombed out the goalkeeper he'd kept faith with nearly all season, to bring in Luton Town loanee Les Sealey. United had played out a thrilling 3-3 draw in the first game against opponents Crystal Palace, and while Leighton had his wobbly moments – as he had been having for quite some time – few really expected Ferguson to ditch him. And yet in the build-up to kick-off in the match (played, incongruously, on a Thursday) rumours started to spread. Somebody must have leaked the team news because, if memory serves, people were speculating wildly that Sealey would be thrown in at the deep end well before the teamsheets were out. And once it was confirmed, Wembley (particularly the United end) was in shock. Perhaps sensing that Sealey would be knee-knockingly nervous, many fans chanted his name prior to kick-off. It did the trick. Sealey made several excellent saves as United nicked the game 1-0 thanks to a rare goal from full-back Lee Martin. It was the first trophy Ferguson won with United. How different things might have turned out. Sealey tragically died after a heart attack in 2001, aged just 43. As for Leighton, he never played for Manchester United again.

Another famous example came when England manager Glenn Hoddle had to whittle his provisional World Cup squad down to a final selection. Eight players had to go and it was extremely tough for Hoddle to settle on exactly which eight. Normally Gascoigne would be a shoo-in for the squad even if he wasn't going to be first-choice starter, due to his central midfield conjuring ability. But he had been beset by personal problems (as so often in his career), which added an element of doubt. Was he in the right mental state for the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a World Cup? Hoddle, who as we know places considerable import on mental wellness, decided Gascoigne was not. Cue floods of tears and (allegedly) a considerable tantrum as poor Gascoigne struggled to come to terms with the fact that his World Cup dream was over; he would not get chance to shine again like he had in Italy in 1990. Among the other seven to be omitted were Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Jamie Redknapp and Dion Dublin. Hoddle, so the story goes, was asked in a press conference about why he'd not selected his talismanic midfielder. He got the journalists to turn their dictaphones off and asked: "Would you take him?" None of them said they would.

It's a depressing indicator of the rampant commercialism in world football today that you know a World Cup is just around the corner because Nike will put out a epic commercial, usually featuring some of Brazil's most skillful players. Ronaldinho was the focus of their affections this time, performing step-overs by a corner flag as a ticker showed Youtube views and Facebook 'likes' whizzing into the millions. Cue Dunga's squad announcement: no Ronaldinho. Never mind Nike, it only cost many millions of pounds to make the ad and broadcast it thousands of times over in expensive prime-time slots on television networks across the globe. Better luck next time.

Another hugely memorable moment, as the massively under pressure Newcastle manager Ruud Gullit grew fed up of the dressing room factions conspiring against him. A small group of players, led by Alan Shearer and Rob Lee, were (it was alleged) trying to turn the rest of the squad against the Dutchman. Gullit, perhaps underestimating the seismic reaction dropping Shearer would have with the Geordie faithful, left him on the bench (along with Duncan Ferguson) in favour of such luminaries as Silvio Maric, Paul Robinson and Jamie McClen. It appears the clash of enormous egos was too much for Gullit in the end; dropping Shearer would be the final nail in his coffin. Newcastle lost 2-1 to their newly-promoted arch rivals. The Toon Army had seen enough and so had chairman Freddy Shepherd. However, apropos of nothing, Newcastle were drawing 1-1 when Shearer came on as a 72nd-minute substitute.

What a proud day for Wolves fans, getting through to an FA Cup semi against Wenger's Arsenal at Villa Park. But it wasn't to be a happy day for the club's hugely popular strikeforce of Steve Bull and Robbie Keane. Wolves manager Mark McGhee opted for the languid, socks-round-the-ankles charms of Steve Claridge instead, before introducing his prized pair during the second half. However, by that point Arsenal had been in the lead for a long time, having scored what proved to be the only goal of the game in the 12th minute through Christopher Wreh.

Dariusz Kubicki was something of a jobbing pro, mostly unspectacular, so you may be wondering why on earth he's in included in this list. Well, it's because Kubicki had been a dependable and consistent servant for Sunderland and was just one game shy of equalling the club's post-war record of 125 consecutive appearances (held by George Mulhall). This fact had been given the big build-up by the local press and fans were looking forward to giving Kubicki the round of applause he richly deserved for such an impressive feat in an era of three substitutes and squad rotation. The big day arrived and Sunderland headed to the Baseball Ground to play Derby County. The tannoy announcer read out the Sunderland team: "Tony Coton, Gareth Hall, Martin Scott, Andy Melville, Richard Ord, Michael Gray...". Hang on a minute, the Mackems fans thought. No Dariusz? Maybe he's in midfield? "...Kevin Ball, Steve Agnew, Paul Bracewell...". Nope, not in midfield either. Peter Reid had dropped Kubicki just as he was poised to enter club legend. Every Sunderland supporter was utterly bemused, not least because playing in Kubicki's place was Gareth Hall, one of the worst footballers of the Premier League era (as Chelsea fans will testify). Presumably Kubicki had a word with the gods, because Hall went on to concede a needless late penalty that cost Sunderland the match. Actually, scrub that, he'd probably have done that anyway. 

The finest right foot Manchester United has ever known, Beckham was shocked to discover that – upon returning from injury – he could not dislodge plucky Ole Gunnar Solskjaer from the right-midfield berth in Manchester United starting line-up. Ferguson appeared to feel that Beckham had become too much of a celebrity, too big for his boots, not focused enough – plus Solskjaer was doing the business. Some would argue that Ferguson has been annoyed with Beckham for a long time. In February 2000 Beckham skipped trained just 48 hours before a key game with Leeds, apparently because son Brooklyn was unwell. "It wasn't so much a clear-the-air meeting between the pair, more a case of Ferguson reminding Beckham what is expected of him," wrote Paul Hetherington in the Sunday Mirror at the time. The relationship deteriorated further on 15 February 2003 when, in the wake of an FA Cup defeat to Arsenal, a livid Sir Alex Ferguson threw or kicked a football boot in Beckham's general direction, striking him just above the eye and causing a cut that required stitches. Speculation was rife about Beckham's future, and so it was that he left for Real Madrid in a £25m move that summer. The finest of Fergie's Fledglings had flown the nest. Beckham had grown too big for even Sir Alex to handle. 

Beckham shows off his stitches in February 2003
Many thanks to all who suggested entries for this article. There were many good ones that didn't quite make the cut: Matt Le Tissier missing out on an England squad after an England B hat-trick; Sander Westerveld going from Liverpool's first choice to third choice when Liverpool signed Dudek and Kirkland on the same day; Alan Hansen's World Cup '86 omission by stand-in manager Sir Alex Ferguson; Daniel Passarella's refusal to pick Fernando Redondo for Argentina unless he cut his hair, and many more besides