SUMMER IN AUTUMN’S CLOTHING

Are policemen getting younger or are you getting older? Is the English football season kicking-off earlier every year or…no, balls to that! It is kicking-off too bloody early this time round – far too bloody early. Granted, we have another seven days before the pampered Prima Donnas of the Premier League are chauffeur driven through the gold-plated gates of their millionaire mansions and deign to breathe the same air as the common people for ninety minutes again; but that will still only be August 11. This weekend, English football’s pimp – otherwise known as television – again fires the starting pistol for a marathon that will take us all the way to next summer’s World Cup in Russia; the three Football League divisions have a week’s start on the Premier League, and their campaign opens this evening.

Domestic football is not, and never should be, a summer sport. The bi-annual international tournaments are different, and the fact we have the granddaddy of them all at the end of the 2017/18 season is perhaps why this season gets underway just four days into August. The traditional curtain-raiser to the top division’s very own marathon, the match between last season’s champions and FA Cup winners that most of us prefer to refer to by its old name of the Charity Shield, takes place on Sunday (not Saturday, heaven forbid!); and the Premier League kicks-off proper next…er…Friday.

Although there’s always an overlap between the cricket season and the football season at either end, it never feels quite right when they’re being played simultaneously; it’s an uneasy, jarring combination – a bit like listening to Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ during a heat-wave in July or anything by The Beach Boys in December. When the football season is galloping towards a (hopefully) exciting climax – with promotion and relegation places still up for grabs and everything in the balance – the second half of the season has been building up to such a frenetic pace that there’s no time to catch one’s breath. It then appears anachronistic that in the thick of this high-speed race to football’s finishing post, the first day of plodding play at Headingley is taking place, greeted by a smattering of old geezers armed with packed lunches and brollies.

The chasm between the two sports is partly the nature of the climate in which they are supposed to be played. True, rain regularly stops play in cricket during those chilly early weeks of the county game and the opening day of every football season is usually bathed in blazing sunshine; but the erratic temperament of the English summer aside, that unpredictable bridge between spring and autumn can occasionally produce the kind of weather entirely conducive to leather-on-willow, not to mention the sedate commentary of ‘Test Match Special’ rather than the hysterical castrato that goalmouth action can inspire on ‘Match of the Day’.

Both sports are so associated with the time of year in which they’ve traditionally taken place that whenever the football season impinges upon cricket’s turf, it almost makes football appear to be a narcissistic, scene-stealing actor, unwilling to allow any other member of the cast to grab the audience’s attention while he has no lines. When the England cricket team are busy playing a home Test series against South Africa, football should just let them get on with it and be gracious enough to grant them their brief moment under the spotlight before being edged off-stage by the plunge back into 24/7 fanatical coverage spanning eight or nine whole months that football regards as an entitlement. Few pay attention when the cricket season creeps into view, right at the moment when the football season is reaching its dramatic climax; yet football thinks nothing of gate-crashing cricket’s place in the sun.

If I want to evoke the sound of a childhood summer, I only have to hear the voices of John Arlott, Jim Laker or Richie Benaud and I’m there; if I want to evoke the sound of a childhood autumn or winter, I hear the voices of John Motson, Barry Davies or Brian Moore. These individual voices are as associated with a specific time of year as an Easter egg or a harvest festival. Each has its proper place and its seasonal relevance, but perhaps the way in which lines drawn in the sand that always divided the respective seasons have been blurred in recent years – particularly where the retail sector is concerned – has been compounded by the increasing extension of the overlap between cricket and football every August.

Come September, October and (especially) November, I will be as hooked as everyone else with a semblance of interest in the football season; the nights drawing in, the clocks going back and the fire being switched-on are rituals that perfectly complement the football season at its grimy, gritty best, when men are separated from the boys on muddy quagmires and teams scrap for scalps as the money-spinning prospect of the Third Round of the FA Cup hovers into view. There’s a kind of masochistic pleasure in anticipating the worst of the winter, knowing it will pass and that spring is waiting at the finishing line. If a team can survive January and February unscathed, the prize is all the sweeter come March and April.

Yes, when the Ashes are staged in Australia, they take place in the incongruous environs of a Southern Hemisphere winter; but that’s the other side of the world, and it’s permissible as a result. One couldn’t imagine county cricket being played on English pitches in November, so why should we have to invite the football season into our homes at the beginning of August, when we’re neither prepared nor bothered? It’s arrived at the party ahead of everyone else and hasn’t even brought a bottle with it, despite being able to afford an entire wine cellar. That’s just not cricket.

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HELLO GOODBYE

gainsbourg-2On a night when Paul Nuttall, British politics’ very own Walter Mitty, followed in the illustrious footsteps of his predecessor as UKIP leader by failing to gain entry to Westminster, there were mixed messages again for Jeremy Corbyn. Had Labour failed to retain Stoke-on-Trent Central, a seat they’ve held since its inception in 1950, chances are we may have had to endure yet another leadership election; as it turned out, Labour didn’t lose the by-election triggered by the recent resignation of Tristram Hunt, but it was a different story up in Cumbria.

Until the early hours of this morning, 1982 was the last time a sitting government won a by-election in a constituency held by the opposition; that the Tories took Copeland from a Labour Party that has clung onto the seat since 1935 either suggests Theresa May is the most successful Prime Minister since Mrs T or that the Conservatives are blessed to be up against such weak opposition. I suspect the latter is closer to the truth, though various factors played their part in this upset.

With the Sellafield Nuclear Power Station being a major employer in the constituency, it’s possible Jeremy Corbyn’s famous aversion to nuclear power influenced the 6% swing away from Labour towards the Tories. The Conservative candidate Trudy Harrison overturned a Labour majority of 2,564, which is an achievement not to be sniffed at; the last time a sitting government enjoyed such an impressive by-election victory was in January 1966, a win for Labour in Hull North that filled Harold Wilson with enough confidence to call a General Election that March. Confronted by a Labour Party incapable of holding onto a seat it has owned since the days of Clement Attlee, maybe Theresa May will attempt to strike before 2020 after all.

Had Labour lost Stoke Central, it’d be feasible to claim Corbyn isn’t working beyond his London heartland; as it is, holding at least one traditional Labour seat has given the beleaguered leader a breather, but for how much longer? Yes, he is beloved by the faithful, but half of Corbyn’s own MPs can’t abide him, and his message isn’t exactly sweeping the country when the party in power is hardly the most popular to ever hold office. It seems to be a damning indictment of the dearth of talent Labour can call upon that it has nobody capable of realistically challenging Jezza or of connecting with the electorate outside of metropolitan enclaves. The prospects aren’t great, whenever the next General Election takes place.

Equally, UKIP may have taken the runner-up prize in Stoke, but their hopes were considerably higher in a city that voted overwhelmingly Leave in last year’s EU Referendum; if it can’t win there, where can it win? Answers on a postcard to Bongo-Bongo Land. Being the permanent bridesmaid doesn’t amount to much in an electoral system that continues to adhere to a first-past-the-post policy, and for all their headline-grabbing PR it’s hard to envisage that situation changing – especially when the one thing UKIP formed for in the first place has actually happened now.

So, what do last night’s events tell us about the current political landscape? Well, it confirmed UKIP as the No.1 protest vote party again, an honour once held for decades by the Lib Dems; it confirmed Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to invigorate voters outside of those who see the sun every time he bends over; and it confirmed that even a Government that, in one shape or another, has steered the country through seven bloody awful years can still keep winning when the competition is so piss-poor. The Revolution has been postponed for the moment.


LeicesterThe decision of the Leicester City FC board to dispense with the services of their manager Claudio Ranieri is the latest example of how the cut-and-thrust tactics that were once the hallmark of continental football have infiltrated the Premier League. The man who achieved arguably the most remarkable miracle in English soccer since Brian Clough captured the league championship with newly-promoted Nottingham Forest in 1978 is now out of job, barely nine months after leading his team to an unimaginable pinnacle.

With last season’s champions now hovering just a point above the bottom three, the Leicester board have panicked and sacked the man whose Midas Touch has deserted the club in a ridiculously short time. But the players deserve to carry the can for the disaster as much as the manager; their performances have been largely lacklustre this season. Perhaps the shock transition from making up the numbers to suddenly being amongst the big-money prima donnas has gone to their heads. Maybe; but there’s precious little other excuses they could come up with to justify their appalling lack of commitment to the cause of defending their title. And now the man who masterminded that title has paid the price for their on-the-pitch indolence.

A sign of how times have changed is that when Leeds United won the league in 1992, they too followed it with an embarrassingly bad defence, finishing the following season in a pathetic 17th position after failing to win a single away game and allowing Eric Cantona to be picked-up by arch-rivals Manchester United for a mere £1 million. Yet manager Howard Wilkinson kept his job for another three years before being shown the door; had today’s rules applied, he’d have bitten the bullet before the end of the 1992/93 season.

Moreover, Alex Ferguson would never have lasted three-and-a-half years at Old Trafford until winning the FA Cup in 1990 were he at the helm for the same period without success today. The great money chasm between the Premier League and the Championship has instilled a fear in the boards of the top division’s clubs that provokes knee-jerk responses when relegation or an empty trophy cabinet stare them in the face. But it negates building the foundations for long-term success when football adopts a quick-fix mentality. That it should happen to a decent man such as Ranieri and at a club all neutrals were delighted to see crowned champions last May says a great deal about the national sport at a domestic level.

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THE UGLY GAME

police-boxJust when you thought it was safe to put the Paedo back in the box, the blighter has escaped again. Someone call the cops! Not to worry – cometh the Paedo, cometh the Chief Constable; this time it’s the turn of Norfolk’s main man, Simon Bailey. The No.1 Bobby from the land of big-eared boys on farms also happens to be ‘lead for child protection’ of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, so he obviously knows his stuff.

Chief Constable Bailey declared on Saturday that there will be a significant increase in numbers coming forward to report historical sexual abuse in sports other than football. Without even heading for the hat-stand in the hallway and reaching for the headgear marked ‘cynic’, it’s hard not to detect the palpable relish in a statement that means we will once again see the nation’s individual police forces devoting their resources to investigating alleged crimes committed twenty, thirty or forty years ago rather than coping with the far more difficult task of solving crimes committed in the here and now. It’s the crime-fighting equivalent of opting for the cosy familiarity of Radio 2’s playlist instead of taking a risk with 6 Music because the memory-laden soundtrack of the past is easier on the ears and easier to deal with than the unpredictability of the contemporary.

In what our law-enforcers know is a tried-and-trusted self-fulfilling prophesy, the announcement by a prominent policeman (at least in his own neck of the woods) that he suspects ‘there will be other sporting governing bodies…who will come forward and who will identify the fact that they have similar problems’ is guaranteed to unleash the kind of workload the police are evidently in sore need of as well as fuelling this nation’s insatiable appetite for the subject it clearly can’t get enough of. The words ‘credible’ and ‘true’ have yet to be bandied about, but other hackneyed phrases that constitute the lexicon of the historical child abuse narrative have reappeared, just as we all knew they would.

‘Brave’ and ‘Courageous’ were employed to describe the sad TV confessions of a group of ex-footballers fulfilling the moral obligation of the moment by providing a voyeuristic public and a salacious media with the most intimate and explicit personal details of their pasts; and, of course, ‘other victims coming forward’, that other old chestnut, was wheeled out for one more encore. As we are informed that four separate forces are stepping into their customised police boxes for further journeys back in time following last week’s high-profile revelations of a former youth coach who has already served time and is recognised as a past offender, the farcical national inquiry into child sex abuse has said it is ‘watching events closely’, perhaps intending to add football to its itinerary in around three or four years time.

The NSPCC, supposedly a children’s charity, has become the unofficial sponsor of the grown men whose miserable childhoods took place decades ago; the usual ambulance-chasing law firms have pricked-up their ears at a development that holds the prospect of fresh exploitation as well as financial salvation; and Crewe Alexandra, the perennial lower-league dwellers who once employed Barry Bennell, the man at the centre of these allegations, are apparently launching their own investigation into the unpleasant affair to boot. The wheels of the industry are being oiled anew and timing, as ever, is everything.

The BBC has given extensive coverage to this story, excitedly rounding-up the ex-pros to spill the beans on Victoria Derbyshire’s coffee-table chinwag in classic Oprah Winfrey fashion; one can’t help but suspect the Corporation is rubbing its hands together as it has done on numerous occasions post-Savile, eager to prove it wasn’t alone in allowing rampant Paedos to fiddle about to their dark heart’s content on their premises in the past. And, of course, the boys in blue, still smarting from the justifiable condemnation they received following the publication of the report into Operation Midland, are desperate to deflect attention away from their own ineptitude and corruption of justice, hoping they can win back the public’s trust in them by embarking upon a new mission against the common enemy.

As the most extreme extension of the ‘they’re all at it’ conspiracy theory conviction, the historical child abuse industry has been one of the few post-2008 success stories in the UK over the last five years; and like every booming business, it has a network of individuals and institutions that are financially dependent upon it. What would become of the arms industry, after all, if there were no wars taking place in which the latest weaponry was required?

Likewise, having exhausted the respective worlds of showbiz, politics, academia and various branches of Christianity, this particular industry has spent a great deal of time and energy engaged in a search for the next untapped source of revenue. So far, sport – usually bogged-down with match-fixing or drug-taking scandals – has evaded the shadow of historic abuse. Now, however, its time has arrived.

Like many detached observers witnessing yet another chapter in this saga unfolding, I often ponder on how and why we got here. I sometimes wonder if the obsession of Britain with a rare sexual peccadillo and the belief that every outlet of ‘the establishment’ has been a haven for its practitioners due to institutionalised blind eyes betrays a deep grievance with this society’s social and financial inequality. Intense envy of the rich, the famous and the powerful has grown in line with the dramatic decrease of social mobility; and as economic divisions widen rather than narrow it would appear the only way in which many can deal with the harsh truth that they will die in possible poverty and undoubted obscurity is to take the rich, famous and powerful down with them. Unfortunately, the beneficiaries of this nihilistic approach to a hopeless situation are themselves, if not famous, then increasingly rich and increasingly powerful.

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SICK AS A PARROT

linekerNow, then – were we pre-modern before we were post-modern? Or were we simply modern? Whatever the correct term, there once was a time when presenters of television sports programmes were a straight, serious bunch in suits. These bastions of broadcasting for several decades were not beyond the occasional joke, usually when a comedian appeared as a guest on the less formal ambience of a Christmas special or those Cup Final shows that had hours to fill before the ref blew his whistle at 3.00. Largely, however, they had the same avuncular trustworthiness of the era’s newsreaders. It was hard to envisage any of them having a life outside of the studio or sports arena. I don’t think any of their political views or opinions on the day’s issues were ever expressed during a broadcast; they were there solely to air their views on the sport they were covering and the sportsmen and women participating in them.

In a way, Jimmy Hill was the first break with the formula; his initial appearances on London Weekend’s ‘The Big Match’ portrayed him as a bit of an arrogant dandy, with his beard, bushy, long-ish hair, and Carnaby Street-style neckerchief. His naturally combative style as a pundit also set him apart from the genial gentleman’s club of the comb-over crowd; that haircut seemed to be a requisite coiffured touch at the time, worn by such stalwarts as David Coleman, Frank Bough, Harry Carpenter and Brian Moore. Once Jimmy Hill moved into the presenter’s seat, he toned down his opinionated spiel, but I’ve no doubt that if social media had existed in the 1970s, Hill and the likes of Brian Clough (who became a household name mainly through his blunt speaking TV punditry) would have utilised it to get their egos across to as wide an audience as possible.

Would they, however, have engaged in the kind of non-football arguments Gary Lineker has engaged in on Twitter this week? Having kicked-off the season hosting ‘Match of the Day’ in his pants, Lineker is certainly cut from a different cloth to his predecessors. David Coleman in a similar situation that led to Lineker’s unappetising striptease would probably have said he’d eat his hat if Leicester City won the league, though Coleman belonged to the generation that would have actually worn a hat. But Lineker, plying his trade on the pitch through the 80s and into the 90s, belongs to the generation that sought to shed the archaic image of footballers who headed for the golf course to the strains of Robert Palmer or Dire Straits and were polite young men when interviewed by father figures.

In the 90s, ‘Fantasy Football League’ and ‘Under the Moon’ were new, late-night post-modern commentaries on sport that brought the irony prevalent in both the music press and magazines like ‘Loaded’ to a TV genre that had previously been in the hands of dads. Building on the success of Saint and Greavsie on ITV in the 80s, Sky had established its own even cruder double act in the shape of Richard Keys and Andy Gray, though their humour was essentially old-school and certainly didn’t equate with the post-graduate atmosphere that rejected both the starchy presentation of the Beeb and the ‘Wheeltappers and Shunters’ coarseness of its satellite competition.

As for the BBC, it took the retirement of that smooth silver fox Des Lynam from ‘Match of the Day’ for the vacancy to be filled by Lineker, who dispensed with the desk and imported a polished version of ‘TFI Friday’-type presentation to proceedings. The days when Des would soberly don his glasses to speak seriously on the subject of Eric Cantona scissor-kicking hecklers hurling abuse at him were long gone.

With the exception of Frank Bough and the somewhat racy escapades he’d much rather have kept out of the headlines, BBC sports presenters used to keep a low profile off-screen; their non-sports opinions were certainly kept to themselves. But in the Twitter age, Lineker has an online voice as loud as the current players whose performances he analyses on ‘Match of the Day’. Were he to reserve his tweets for the sport he played and presents, his opinions would only be of interest to football fans; but in expanding his Twitter portfolio by commenting on wider events in the world, he has been drawn into the murky waters of trolldom and the instant outrage agenda that generates it.

Making an enemy of UKIP and the EDL, not to mention the Sun – a paper whose track record when it comes to football tragedies alone is hardly something to shout about – won’t necessarily end Lineker’s career; if anything, it could well prolong it. Murdoch’s masses mouthpiece demanding ‘the jug-eared lefty luvvie’ be sacked for questioning the nasty, scaremongering reporting of the refugee ‘children’ arriving on British shores from Calais is a bit rich; but the Sun ascending the moral high-ground is always amusing. Lineker played into their hands by foolishly labelling anyone disagreeing with his own viewpoint as racist, though it was no more stupid than Tory MP David Davies describing Lineker’s response as ‘emotive and controversial views’.

The Sun resorting to playground taunts on the size of Lineker’s ears is just about the level this particular spat has descended to, leaving the actual subject under discussion the province of the prejudiced on one side and the apologists on the other, with no middle ground – again.

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RUSHING TO JUDGEMENT

chedWhat’s the order again – 170,000 slices of humble pie for the signatories of a petition as well as the judgemental Olympian associated with Sheffield United? Okay, collect said meal from Cardiff Crown Court along with a side-order selection of words to eat. Available the moment footballer Ched Evans re-enters society as a free man. We apologise for upsetting the recommended meals for those who subscribe to the ‘she-who-must-be-believed’ menu, but you will have ample opportunity to decry a rare verdict by claiming the decision of a jury will henceforth prevent ‘victims coming forward’. However painful for some it may be to accept, the girl who cried wolf is to blame for genuine rapists getting away with it rather than the jury (including seven women) that found Ched Evans not guilty of rape after he’d already served half of an initial five-year sentence.

It’s extremely easy (not to say lazy) to rush to judgement when it comes to young men paid far too much money at too young an age, partly motivated by envy and partly by the possibilities it presents for the worst kind of lads-on-the-town behaviour. But what of the breed of predatory young women – and, yes, they actually do exist, you who want to propagate the myth of shrinking violets with incorruptible virginal virtue – whose sole purpose in life is to carve as many notches into their bedposts as said wood can take? If anything, both they and the footballers themselves are the victims in all of this, neither having received any designs for life other than those provided by lurid tabloid headlines and ‘mad for it’ TV shows that act as sex education guides in the absence of any advice from absent elders.

Should we expect wise heads on young shoulders when the main role-model teenage girls are presented with is a synth-faced slapper whose main claim to fame is the size of her arse? Reluctant as I am to coin an archaic phrase such as ‘you reap what you sow’, it’s hard to avoid it after a decade or more of relentless media masturbation over a string of vapid inflatable dolls acting as examples of what astonishing heights a woman can achieve. Yeah – sex tape circulated online, marriage to a millionaire, fashion-accessory children, 24/7 reality TV spotlight; that’s what feminism was supposed to be about. Looking down on their legacy, the Pankhurst’s must be so bloody proud.

Hardly renowned for being the finest arbiters of taste when it comes to the opposite sex, young footballers need the kind of steady hand from their employers (and their team managers) when conducting themselves in social situations that they clearly aren’t receiving. George Best’s sad example should have put a plan in place fifty years ago, but the astronomical increase in wages brought about by television investment and corporate sponsorship has elevated practitioners of this particular sport to the kind of league once previously occupied by rock stars and aristocrats. Unlike their illustrious debauched predecessors, however, sportsmen are answerable to governing bodies that are supposed to uphold codes of behaviour, even if an influx of millions has essentially neutered them into irrelevance.

In both cases, how can society support and encourage ‘megalolz’ hedonism whilst simultaneously condemning the ugly extremities of its outcome, whether that of Ian Watkins or – up until this afternoon – Ched Evans? Perhaps the game as played out within the media requires a natural car-crash conclusion, another twist on the old build ‘em up/knock ‘em down syndrome, with heroines and villains each acting out their defined roles. Only, when a verdict in a retrial overturns the neat curtain-closer, what are we to make of it?

Twitter evidently can’t handle the deviation from the script. Some have claimed anyone applauding the outcome is therefore guilty of what Ched Evans was originally found guilty of. It’s the same infantile logic that says everyone who voted Leave in the EU Referendum is a Britain First-supporting racist and everyone who voted Remain is a sandal-wearing, tofu-scoffing Corbynite.

Revelations that the girl who had accused Evans of rape had engaged in the same consensual activities both before and immediately after his participation (when she was apparently traumatised in the latter case) obviously had an impact on his release; but disclosing her less-than-wholesome lifestyle in court has been cited by some as an unfair development. Unfair for actual justice? If this verdict prevents genuine rape victims reporting their abuse to the police, Ched Evans isn’t to blame; responsibility for any future reluctance to do so lies with those who cry rape when it suits them – or suits the politically-motivated legal system that has been quick to exploit the climate.

As for what comes next, it will be interesting to see how the tattered career of an international footballer can be re-established when a no-smoke-without-fire culture will continue to cast doubt on a verdict that nevertheless shone an unflattering light upon the after-hours world of a profession in sore need of some moral guidance.

© The Editor

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OWN-GOAL OF THE SEASON

allardyceIt might have been twenty-three longer than Cloughie lasted at Leeds in 1974, but 67 days is still a pretty pathetic regime when all’s said and done. Sam Allardyce has been forced to surrender the most poisoned of English football chalices and the FA are again left up shit creek without a paddle. The man who allegedly came to the rescue of England’s shamed national side following the humiliation of Euro 2016 – mainly because there was no other available Englishman to take the job – has been relieved of his duties after one solitary match in charge due to being caught exhibiting his avarice in a tediously familiar Fleet Street sting, boasting of ways around the rules governing player transfers in the company of ‘foreign businessmen’ (AKA Daily Telegraph undercover reporters) and apparently fixing a £400,000 deal to act as a representative for their fictitious company. Do these greedy bastards never learn?

Caretakers in the post have always had short runs, though even the likes of Steve McClaren and Kevin Keegan as official, full-time England bosses at least had a year to prove how inept they were; Allardyce’s 67 days has set a new and unenviable record. Don Revie was crucified by the press for bailing out of the job after just three years in 1977, despite them calling for his head on a plate; that he accepted a well-paid post managing the United Arab Emirates immediately thereafter, securing his financial future at a time when running a pub was the best ex-players and managers could hope for, was greeted with outrage, though hindsight bestows a less malignant sheen on Revie’s actions. Now that the game is awash with money at the highest level, the suicidal greed of Allardyce seems especially repugnant.

The decision of the Telegraph to pursue this entrapment exposé, however – following a recognised path that has caught out numerous politicians and minor royals over the years – raises many questions. Was the motivation merely to catch out another public figure, thus giving their readership one more opportunity to adopt a smug, holier-than-thou attitude, or were they determined to bring down the latest holder of an unenviable job because it presented them with the prospect of endless headlines bemoaning the ‘national disgrace’ of the national sport, thus hoping to arrest falling sales of their paper? Probably a bit of both, I suppose.

The British public like nothing more than rounding on an individual lacking in the kind of fantasy humility that few demonstrate when presented with a something-for-nothing windfall; in a get-rich-quick culture fuelled by rampant acquisitiveness and the expectation of an instant fortune that will spare its recipient the long, hard slog of earning it, how many would behave differently to Sam Allardyce if placed in his position? Not that his behaviour is in anything other than deplorable (considering the kind of wage he would have been on as England boss, an estimated £3 million-a-year), but to pretend the majority – let alone Fleet Street – would react with unimpeachable piety if served up a similar offer on the same silver salver is laughably sanctimonious.

Whatever the reasons behind the sting, the national side of the national sport has again been abandoned by one more ‘saviour’, and at a moment when its ability to generate national pride is at a particular low ebb in the wake of the summer’s embarrassments. Sven and Fabio were the great experiments in looking farther afield than the British Isles, yet neither achieved much other than collecting handsome redundancy packages when the inevitable axe fell; and the paucity of Englishmen managing football clubs at the top level means the talent pool for recruitment is more threadbare than it has been at any time since Walter Winterbottom was the first man promoted to the post in 1946.

Yes, we’ve been here before; but Jeremy Corbyn has more chance of filling his frontbench with outstanding Parliamentarians that will win over the non-Momentum electorate than the FA have of finding a dynamic English coach with enough experience of managing millionaire Prima Donnas to make a success of a job that has ruined the reputation of every man to take it on since Alf Ramsey.

The dismal showing of England when up against a team of part-timers from Iceland proved it’s no easy task to mould a group of average players accustomed to plying their weekly trade alongside top overseas talent into a successful all-English unit; Sam Allardyce may have cracked the conundrum, but he would most likely have ended up sacked within a year before returning to the Premier League touchline at the likes of Burnley or Bournemouth.

All this incident has done is to bring forward the decision for the FA by twelve months, embarking on another search for another ultimate failure who can at least look forward to a golden handshake before being waved off on his way. With just the one World Cup qualifier under its belt, the national side now has a series of fixtures to play under the guidance of one more caretaker, in this case Gareth Southgate, while the FA is faced with filling a vacant post that has few capable of filling it. They think it’s all over; and for the England team, it almost feels like it is now.

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THE CLASS CLOWN PROSECUTION SERVICE

gazzaIt’s hard to think of a greater expression of sheer bilious venom to have ever been captured on disc than Bob Dylan’s 1965 top ten single, ‘Positively 4th Street’. ‘You’ve got a lot of nerve/to say you are my friend’ snarls Dylan in the opening line. ‘When I was down/you just stood there grinning’. Its lyrical target remains the subject of speculation, but at a time when Dylan was delving into more obscure and oblique lyrical realms, the song is a uniquely direct collection of grievances spat out at the disgruntled folkie audience from the newly-electric troubadour. The time-honoured ritual of kicking a man when he’s down, especially when the kickers in question built the man up in the first place, is particularly pungent in this country. The British media – and to an extent (it has to be said) the general public – like nothing better than the downfall of a famous name they once lauded and applauded; when the Law gets involved as well, the one-time darling doesn’t stand a chance.

A quarter of a century ago, Paul Gascoigne was one of the most famous people in the country. Already recognised as a prodigious talent by regular followers of football, his role in the England team’s unexpected route to the World Cup semi-final in 1990 caught the eye of the fair-weather fans that only pay attention when the national side does well in a major tournament. Receiving a yellow card in the battle with the Germans, Gascoigne’s realisation that he would therefore miss the final should England make it provoked something nobody had ever seen a participant in such a masculine pastime reduced to before – he burst into tears. Overnight, ‘Gazza’ became a national treasure for wearing his heart on his sleeve, an instant household name whose emotions placed him under the scrutiny of a spotlight his emotions were ill-equipped to deal with.

England manager Bobby Robson had described his star youngster as being ‘daft as a brush’, and Gazza certainly played the joker within the England team, his evident hyperactivity and childlike enthusiasm for being the class clown masking a deep insecurity and emotional vulnerability at the root of his manic persona. When his career didn’t quite pan out as it should have, Gazza found the intense press intrusion into his private life and personal relationships a downside to the fame he had embraced with such gusto in the aftermath of Italia 90. The trajectory his life followed thereafter uncannily echoed the route taken by that other outstanding football talent produced by the British Isles, George Best. The demon drink took hold and after one final glorious hurrah on the pitch with Euro 96, Gazza ended his days as a player turning out for lower league clubs seemingly to make ends meet. It was a sad winding down to a playing career that should have ended on a far higher note.

Sport, like many other areas of society, has become adept at smugly patting itself on the back of late via various initiatives allegedly aimed at stamping out prejudices towards ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals and the mentally ill. But its ability to aid those within it that have suffered as a consequence of previous inaction on the part of sporting authorities is fairly limited. Paul Gascoigne’s alcoholism and mental illness have received precious little assistance from football’s governing bodies; some fellow team-mates have done their bit to help him out, but Gazza has paid the rent in recent years by joining the after-dinner circuit. A man whose natural talent on the field of play is the kind today’s England side would die for has been relegated to a graveyard it’s difficult to imagine contemporaries such as Gary Lineker or Alan Shearer enduring.

Throughout the years since he retired from playing, Gazza’s difficulties have been reported on with obscene relish by the tabloid press. The ‘How the mighty have fallen’ subtext to every telescopic lens image of Gascoigne staggering around dressed in wino chic is appalling, though who would expect anything less from the press? Unfortunately, Paul Gascoigne is not emotionally equipped to cope with that kind of intrusive voyeurism and one suspects the dream headline craved by the pack who persist in slavering over his every misstep would be the one announcing his premature death.

And now poor old Gazza has been subjected to another irredeemably corrupt British institution – the Law. Today he was found guilty of ‘Racially Aggravated Abuse’, following an ill-timed and innocuous throwaway rehash of an old unfunny Bernard Manning joke during one of his ‘An Evening with Gazza’ events in Wolverhampton. The fact that the utterly reprehensible Crown Prosecution Service (a pusillanimous stain on this country’s legal profession beyond compare) chose to pursue this charge all the way to court merely because it could is despicable enough, but the box-ticking, self-righteous piety encapsulated in the summary of the District Judge at Dudley Magistrates’ Court reads as a last will and testament for common sense within British Law.

After praising the contemptible CPS for bringing the case to court, District Judge Graham Wilkinson pompously declared: ‘As a society it is important that we challenge racially-aggravated behaviour in all its forms. It is the creeping low-level racism that society still needs to challenge. A message needs to be sent that in the twenty-first century society that we live in, such action, such words will not be tolerated.’

And yet the CPS is tolerated, despite its jaw-dropping catalogue of sanctimonious moral crusading and politically-motivated pursuance of those whose crime has been to utter a mistimed gag in public or to have indulged in a consensual intimate encounter with a willing participant decades before that has now been reclassified as post-therapy rape. Fined £1,000 for ‘threatening or abusive words or behaviour’, were Paul Gascoigne clued-up on the rancid and redundant institution that dragged him into court he might well ask what the monetary value would be of a suitably fitting fine the CPS should receive for its deplorable record over its lamentable 30-year existence. I suspect the amount is incalculable.

© The Editor

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SATURDAY AFTERNOON WAS ALRIGHT FOR FIGHTING

74I watched the Manchester derby a couple of days ago – no, not the Utd Vs City clash from this weekend, where the majority of the hype surrounding it emanated from the rival managers rather than the players. It was from April 1974 and far more was at stake that Saturday afternoon, for the Reds were looking relegation from the top flight of English football square in the face. Amazing as it may seem today, the dreaded drop came; and who should deliver the killer blow? In one of football’s cruellest ironies, it was none other than ex-King of the Stretford End, Denis Law. Deemed surplus to requirements at Old Trafford, the last survivor of the legendary 60s triumvirate completed by Best and Charlton had been sold to United’s neighbourhood nemesis and returned to haunt the club that made him by scoring the goal that sent them down.

Law’s despair was immediately evident, and as his strike sparked a pitch invasion, he was substituted. Deciding to retire before the beginning of the next season, his crucial goal in the most dramatic derby of them all was his last ever touch in league football. Yet, even that momentous moment was ultimately overshadowed by the mass encroachment upon the players’ turf by the fans. Twice the match was stopped by the referee – the first time to clear the pitch before the game could be restarted and the second time to bring both teams off for their own safety. They never came back on, the result stood and Manchester United would be playing their fixtures in Division Two during the 1974/75 season.

Watching this game forty-two years on from when it was played, what struck me most about the pitch invasions was the age of the supporters participating in them. I doubt many were over eighteen. They all appeared to be young boys around 13-17 and could easily have passed for members of The Bay City Rollers going by their haircuts and dress sense. Even before they grabbed their fifteen minutes, they were visible in great numbers every time the camera closed in on either goalkeeper. The ground seemed to be packed with no supporters representing any other age group, as if the pop star following George Best had brought to Old Trafford had permanently lowered the average age of the average fan, even though the wayward Irish genius had already drifted off into the last wasted decade of his career.

Even the pitch invasions themselves, though obviously planned to disrupt the match should the result go against the home side, had a shambolic, almost anarchic feel to them; there was a distinct absence of the pseudo-militaristic organisation that became the hallmark of the slightly older ‘professional’ football hooligans that characterised a good deal of the 1980s, and the mobile police wall that was formed to herd the fans back into the stands didn’t provoke any fisticuffs. Hindsight naturally comes to the fore when viewing an archive example of the troubles that plagued the national sport for more than a decade thereafter, with Brian Moore (the host of the programme showing the game) decrying the hooliganism and advocating the erection of fencing to prevent further incidents of this nature – something that took a few more seasons to happen. Nobody clearly had any idea of how much worse the situation would become.

The more physical followers of Manchester United had a bad reputation for a long time, though were gradually superseded by similar-minded supporters of other clubs by the end of the 70s. I have no doubt that many of that decade’s young hooligans grew up to be older (though far from wiser) hooligans in the next decade, yet the fact they started so young and were allowed to run riot for so long says a great deal about the way the game changed in the 70s.

Yes, the Best phenomenon certainly played its part in attracting more youngsters to matches, but the absence of the older father figures that had always indoctrinated their sons with a passion for the sport so that they would keep their team supported for years to come meant there was no longer anyone present to admonish the youngsters. Early retirement from match-day was encouraged by increasing leisure pursuits for the older man and fan, and many were dissuaded from returning to full-time supporter status by the far-from family atmosphere that had developed on the terraces. The great tribal clashes of the 60s, particularly the Mods and Rockers, appeared to have relocated from seaside resort to football ground, even if the only thing that now divided the enemies in terms of dress was the colour of their respective scarves.

How big a hole did the cost of supporting one’s chosen team eat into the pocket-money or wages of those kids on the Old Trafford pitch in 1974, one wonders? It can’t have been that great an amount or else they would have been priced out of football and would have had no option but to divert their adolescent aggression elsewhere. They certainly couldn’t enact the same ritual at Old Trafford today, nor at any other ground in the Premier League. All-seater stadia has probably served to reduce the potential for trouble in a way the old terraces couldn’t, but the cost of attending regular football matches in the twenty-first century precludes the presence of unescorted youngsters in such high numbers. There was apparently ‘a bit of trouble’ at the West Ham Vs Watford game on Saturday, but hooliganism is so rare in top flight football today that any inkling of it receives the kind of coverage major incidents would have in the past. And I’ve a feeling those involved would have all been over-18.

If old-school hooliganism exists on any scale in English football in 2016 it is usually in the lower leagues, at clubs where ticket prices remain low and attendance at one’s local ground doesn’t help to subsidise the weekly income of foreign millionaires. The least attractive element of 70s soccer survives out there in the wilds of what used to be the Third and Fourth Divisions, though should a team rise through the ranks and reach the Promised Land of the Premier League, it soon evaporates. Better grounds, better pitches that enable better football to be played, the virtual outlawing of the contact sport, and the higher skill factor that overseas players have brought to the game have all raised the bar beyond anything that could have been foreseen forty years ago; and one sometimes only notices the breadth of the changes when one peers into the curiously brutal portal that replays the game as it used to be.

© The Editor

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FIFTY YEARS OF HURT

EscobarAnyone remember the World Cup in Colombia in 1986? If you do, you must have been ingesting a sizeable amount of hallucinogenics at the time, for it never happened. It was certainly scheduled as such following Spain in 1982, but the established pattern of never awarding the event to a country that had previously staged it was finally broken when FIFA opted for Mexico (hosts in 1970) at the eleventh hour. Up to that point, the World Cup tended to alternate between the soil of South America and Europe, the traditional powerhouse continents of world football; the first such tournament had been held in Uruguay, after all.

Having had Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Argentina all host the World Cup, Colombia was the next South American name out of the hat – winning the bid as far back as 1974; but by the time the 1982 tournament had ended, it became apparent that Colombia was in no fit state to take on the challenge four years later. Economic reasons were cited, but there was a hell of a lot more to it than that. The brutal murder of Colombian international Andres Escobar upon his return home from scoring an own-goal at the 1994 World Cup sadly proved FIFA all too right.

Today’s announcement of a ceasefire between the largest rebel forces of the left (FARC) and the Colombian Government could potentially end a conflict that has spanned a staggering 52 years. FARC (an acronym derived from the Spanish spelling of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) formed in 1964 as the paramilitary wing of the Colombian Communist Party and has largely based itself in the plentiful rural areas of the country for the past half-century, springing as it did from an impoverished agricultural community confronted by immense inequalities and suppression of all subversion within Colombian society. However, any hopes that FARC could replicate recent revolutionary events in Cuba at the time of its formation were dashed by the pact between the Colombian Government and wealthy landowners, who had already guaranteed US support against any guerrilla rebellion. Instead, the whole unedifying bloodbath has dragged on and on for five devastating decades.

The history of South and Central America is, with a few exceptions, largely a lesson of post-colonial mismanagement of the most disastrous manner over the last century and-a-half. Back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the various British trading outposts dotted around the globe had yet to morph into overseas territories, the Spanish Empire was at its height, ruling over great swathes of land in the Americas; but by the turn of the nineteenth century, Spain was in terminal decline as a world power, overtaken by Britain and (especially) Napoleonic France. The Peninsular War of 1807-14 was a decisive conflict contributing towards the eventual defeat of Bonaparte, but only Britain emerged from it stronger than it had been before; the strain of the Napoleonic Wars on Spain and Portugal was a precursor of the strain of the Second World War on the UK, resulting in the loss of colonies neither country could afford to govern when in turmoil at home.

The independence of South American countries previously under Spanish and Portuguese rule in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century has parallels with the loss of British colonies in Africa during the mid-to-late twentieth century, and what happened next also has a ring of familiarity to it. The country that became Colombia had, under Spanish rule, been known as the Viceroy of New Granada, a huge colonial possession that also comprised modern-day Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela as well as parts of Brazil, Peru and Guyana. Left to its own devices following Spanish withdrawal in 1819, the future Colombia went through a series of name changes that must have given rise to several headaches for cartographers of the era – the Republic of New Granada, the Granadine Confederation, the United States of Colombia and finally, in 1886, the Republic of Colombia. There was a split with Panama, following the Thousand Days’ War of 1899-1902, when the borders of modern-day Colombia were established, but the constant changing of names reflected a deeper degree of uncertainty in the country as to its identity.

The USA had played a part in the split with Panama, tied-in with the construction of the Panama Canal, and despite a subsequent war with Peru, the new nation of Colombia was largely peaceful until the period of the late 40s and early 50s known as ‘The Violence’, when the country’s two major political parties engaged in a civil war and claimed the lives of over 180,000 people. The cessation of hostilities in the 1960s gave rise to somewhat superficial peace, though various guerrilla groups of both left and right below the surface were forming to take violence onto a new and bloodier level altogether.

The current conflict – though after half-a-century of it, the term ‘historic’ could also be applied – is reputed to boast a death-toll of more than 260,000, so any indications of genuine peace on the horizon are bound to be imbued with a great deal of good-will and optimistic hope on the part of the long-suffering Colombian people. As a continent, South America is oozing untapped potential and possesses the ingredients to eventually emerge from the lengthy shadows cast by drug barons, civil wars, pseudo-Marxist dictators and unhealthy US interference in the same way that Eastern Europe began to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Bloc at the end of the twentieth century. But so much damage has been done since it wrestled itself free from Spanish and Portuguese rule that it could take at least another couple of generations before anything remotely resembling success can be discerned.

In the case of Colombia, a country with a richness of biodiversity that encompasses the Andes, Amazonian rainforests and coastlines on both the Caribbean and the Pacific as well as a healthy ethnic and linguistic mix, one can only hope some kind of stability can be achieved that will help it rise anew from decades of unnecessary bloodshed. Who knows, perhaps it can one day get round to staging the World Cup it was forced to surrender back in 1986. The world is crossing its fingers for a long overdue happy ending.

© The Editor

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THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM

WillieEnglish football’s national side was, for the first near-century of its existence, chosen by a committee of selectors, as was the tradition in cricket until as late as the 1990s. The appointment of Walter Winterbottom in 1946 as team manager with authority for coaching was a revolutionary development, though Winterbottom himself didn’t have overall control regarding team selection and had also never been a club manager. The Club Vs Country debate was as burning an issue in the 40s and 50s as much as it is today, and even though international football in England and Scotland predates league football, success at club level was regarded as the litmus test for football management. Had the path from league to international football applied before the war, someone such as Herbert Chapman – a record-breaking manager with Huddersfield Town in the 20s and Arsenal in the 30s – would surely have been the top candidate for the England manager’s job had such a post existed at the time.

As it was, the FA decided to appoint a team manager after the war and chose a former Manchester United player whose playing career, like so many, had been interrupted by global conflict. However, after being demobbed, Winterbottom had devoted his time to coaching and was something of a visionary when it came to his approach to the game. During his stint as England’s first manager, he guided the side to thirteen out of sixteen victories in the British Championships; at the time, the Home International contest was regarded as the real barometer of success, being the oldest international competition in the world. He also led the team to qualification for the World Cup for four consecutive tournaments, even if FIFA’s premier contest had yet to attain the pre-eminence it holds today.

Before being relieved of his duties by the FA in 1963, Walter Winterbottom urged English football’s governing body that a man with complete control of team selection as well as the coaching aspect was vital if the national side were to compete with the top teams of Europe and South America. The FA responded by appointing Alf Ramsey, a former international who had steered unfashionable Ipswich Town from the Third Division to a remarkable triumph as English league champions in 1962. As we all know by now, Winterbottom’s recommendations paid off, with Ramsey managing England’s only triumph in an international tournament fifty years ago. Winterbottom’s insistence on the importance of coaching ironically benefitted English league football more than the national side, assembling a line-up of notable names on the coaching staff during his stint as England manager, names such as Don Howe, Malcolm Allison, Bill Nicholson, Joe Mercer, Dave Sexton, Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson – all of whom went on to achieve success at club level.

Despite surrendering a 2-0 lead to West Germany as defending champions in the Quarter Finals of the 1970 Mexico World Cup and crashing out 3-2, the now-Sir Alf Ramsey kept his job and seemed set to take England to another World Cup in 1974. However, a 1972 home defeat to West Germany in the European Championships highlighted the subsequent development of the two teams that had competed in the 1966 World Cup Final. The Germans had gone back to basics and built a team around sweeper Franz Beckenbauer that would go on to win that tournament and the World Cup itself two years later, a competition England failed to qualify for, and a failure that cost Sir Alf his job.

The FA understandably turned to the most successful club manager of the past decade, Leeds United’s Don Revie, in the summer of 1974 and there was cause for optimism at the appointment. Sadly, though a former England international himself, Revie established a pattern of struggling to replicate club success at international level that has persisted ever since. His England side had more or less failed in its attempt to qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina when Revie gave the press what it wanted and walked out on the job; that he took care of his own financial future by signing-up to coach the national side of the United Arab Emirates at a time when England managers weren’t guaranteed a golden handshake was something that unfairly blackened his character forevermore, and it was notable that his short-lived successor at Leeds (and long-time nemesis), Brian Clough, applied for the job as England manager after Revie’s resignation. Cloughie’s avowed intention to take complete control of the FA itself didn’t do him any favours and the FA played it safe by appointing West Ham manager Ron Greenwood.

Exiting the 1982 World Cup undefeated, cheated by the hand of Maradona in 1986, let down by the wayward penalty kick of Chris Waddle in 1990 and the similarly ineffective boot of Gareth Southgate in 1996, England’s international record since the departure of Don Revie pales pitifully next to our nearest European neighbours, especially the Germans and the French. Men with impressive English club credentials – Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor, Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Steve McClaren – coupled with those whose reputations rested upon Continental club success – Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello – all failed to reap the rewards that more than one generation of English footballers suggested should have been a given. Roy Hodgson was merely the latest in a long line of managers incapable of moulding a team from talents that are crying out for a system to sweep competition aside on the world stage.

With the majority of England’s top club sides managed by overseas coaches, the FA’s shortlist of successors to Hodgson seems to have thrown up the sole name of Sam Allardyce, a man who has never won a single trophy at club level, but whose dogged determination to evade relegation has earned him a reputation as a gritty survivor. If predecessors who could boast far more impressive league CVs couldn’t concoct a magic formula for the national side, that’s no real impediment. It remains to be seen if Allardyce can succeed where everyone since Sir Alf has failed, but I suspect someone well-versed in grinding out results without being remotely pretty possibly stands a better chance, if Portugal’s triumph at Euro 2016 is anything to go by. Were he to dismantle the worn-out and wholly ineffective structure of the FA in the process, he might just succeed. But that is just one of the many impossible dreams to be realised by whoever inherits the most unenviable poisoned chalice in English football.

© The Editor

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