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