Archive | July, 2006

Some Silly Quotations

Posted on 31 July 2006 by JamesHamilton

Some of these must be apocryphal. Thanks to Karen and Hank Grudzien. I like Shearer’s near the end.
“My parents have been there for me, ever since I was about 7.” David Beckham

“I would not be bothered if we lost every game as long as we won the league.” Mark Viduka

“Alex Ferguson is the best manager I’ve ever had at this level. Well, he’s the only manager I’ve actually had at this level. But he’s the best manager I’ve ever had.” David Beckham

“If you don’t believe you can win, there is no point in getting out of bed at the end of the day.” Neville Southall

“I’ve had 14 bookings this season – 8 of which were my fault, but 7 of which were disputable.” Paul Gascoigne

“I’ve never wanted to leave. I’m here for the rest of my life, and hopefully after that as
well.” Alan Shearer

“I’d like to play for an Italian club, like Barcelona.” Mark Draper

“You’ve got to believe that you’re going to win, and I believe we’ll win the World Cup until the final whistle blows and we’re knocked out.” Peter Shilton

“I faxed a transfer request to the club at the beginning of the week, but let me state that I don’t want to leave Leicester.” Stan Collymore

“I was watching the Blackburn game on TV on Sunday when it flashed on the screen that George (Ndah) had scored in the first minute at Birmingham. My first reaction was to ring him up. Then I remembered he was out there playing.” Ade Akinbiyi

“Without being too harsh on David Beckham, he cost us the match.” Ian Wright

“I’m as happy as I can be – but I have been happier.” Ugo Ehiogu

“Leeds is a great club and it’s been my home for years, even though I live in
Middlesborough.” Jonathan Woodgate

“I can see the carrot at the end of the tunnel.” Stuart Pearce

“I took a whack on my left ankle, but something told me it was myright.” Lee Hendrie

“I couldn’t settle in Italy- it was like living in a foreign country.” Ian Rush

“Germany are a very difficult team to play…they had 11 internationals out there
today.” Steve Lomas

“I always used to put my right boot on first, and then obviously my right sock.” Barry Venison

“I definitely want Brooklyn to be christened, but I don’t know into what religion yet.” David Beckham

“The Brazilians were South American, and the Ukrainians will be more European.” Phil Neville

“All that remains is for a few dots and commas to be crossed.” Mitchell Thomas

“One accusation you can’t throw at me is that I’ve always done my best.” Alan Shearer

“I’d rather play in front of a full house than an empty crowd.” Johnny Giles

“Sometimes in football you have to score goals.” Thierry Henry

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Five Over-Rated Teams

Posted on 31 July 2006 by JamesHamilton

Saturday brought me: Gianluca Vialli, The Italian Job; Arthur Hobcraft, The Football Man; James Corbett, England Expects; and Connolly/MacWilliam, Fields of Glory, Paths of Gold. Consequently, I’m starting the week ill through lack of sleep. I’m going to hand you something light and thought-free. Five famous teams, all winners, that I feel have had just a little more glory than they actually deserve.

1. England 1966. Even the players must be tired of it all by now. Although this was the team that won the World Cup, it was actually a weak team by the standards of the time. In ’66, England were desperately short of strikers. Once Greaves was injured before the quarter-final, the front men became Hurst and Peters . Neither of them had had ten caps. And there was Roger Hunt. Can you name a Hunt goal for England?. In midfield, the formation was new and untried, involving Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton (whose goals were as important as Hurst’s) and Alan Ball (21 years old and with 12 caps to his name without ever having been a fixture. By comparison, the England team of Byrne, Edwards and Taylor, barrelling towards the World Cup eight years earlier, or the cool, elegant 1970 side of Lee, Mullery and Cooper, were better bedded-in, more coherent, and in both cases far more skilful across the side. The 1960-61 side, with the amazing, unequalled October-May hot streak (W7 D1 L0 F44 A11), the Charlton-Greaves show at its height, had bravura to burn. It’s one of the strange facts of football life that it was the weakest England team of its period, in transition, with inexperienced, limited players trying a new formation, that won the World Cup.

2. Aston Villa 1981-2. I don’t think Villa supporters will mind my saying that during the period in which they won the League title and the European Cup, they were the third best team in England. They were a team with good players – Withe, Shaw, Morley, Mortimer, Seeley in goal – but no more than Everton, or Manchester City were. What happened? Two things. One, they had a lucky season in terms of injuries, using only 14 players all year. It helped that they went out of the FA Cup and League Cup the first chance they had, losing 1-0 to Ipswich Town and 2-1 to Cambridge Town. Ipswich buckled under a huge fixture backlog towards the end of the season. Two, their opponents in the European Cup were weak, You can only beat the teams you’re put up against – but they were weak teams. That year, Celtic drew Juventus; Villa beat teams from Iceland, East Germany, Russia and Belgium before their genuinely creditable win over Bayern Munich in the Final. I can’t help feeling that had English sides not set the trend in the late seventies (winning in 76-77, 77-78, 78-79, 79-80, and 80-81) Villa might not have managed it. They rode a wave started by other, better sides.

3. West Germany/Germany 1976-date. Across this period the sole difference between England and Germany in international terms has been a psychological one. Within the teams, there has been little difference in the quality of the players. For Rumenigge and Klinsmann, read Keegan, Francis, Lineker and Beardsley. Only since the retirement of David Seaman have the Germans had the better goalkeeper. Yet, famously – or should that be tediously? over our period, Germany have won one World Cup and featured in three other World Cup Finals. They’ve won two European Championships. The 1970-76 team of Maier, Beckenbauer, Muller, Netzer and co. were genuinely good. It’s as if that side set some huge flywheel running that has carried the German national side on and on regardless of the on-field talent. It doesn’t even matter if they are “found out”: the current side, now coached by Klinsmann, had an appalling run to the Finals, yet flourished once the tournament was underway. They think they’re Liverpool, but they’ve been Wimbledon all along. They just haven’t noticed.

4. Arsenal 2003/4. The Invincibles. I’m a huge admirer of Wenger’s sides. Aesthetically, had I the choice of watching any team from history, I’d probably choose the 1970s Dutch team, then Wenger’s Arsenal. But not the 2003/4 team. The Invincibles rode their luck in an often quite outrageous fashion on their way to an undefeated season. Remember that missed Van Nistelrooy penalty in September 2003? And their form away from the Premiership was changeable. Although they reached the Champions League quarter final, they’d lost heavily at home to Inter Milan (taking memorable revenge in the return of course). That quarter final saw an edgy defeat to a disorganised but determined Chelsea side. Arsenal allowed themselves to be kicked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United, and anyone who saw the game knows I am not speaking figuratively. The Invincibles aren’t my Arsenal. My Arsenals are the first Wenger Double side, the gallivanting team of Bergkamp, Vieira, Petit and Overmars – and last year’s Champions League finalists, who I think have the potential to achieve far more than any previous Wenger side.

5. Manchester United 1996-2003. I know, but… a very good team, an excellent team, that invariably fell away whenever an opponent got into gear. And that constant failure in front of goal.. I’m referring to the frustrating two legs of the 1996-7 European Cup semi-final against Borussia Dortmund, in which United spent 180 minutes camped in the Germans’ area, doing everything but score. Likewise Monaco in the quarter final a year later. And then triumph, and then Real Madrid, and then Arsenal, and then Chelsea. This Manchester United, like a flat-track bully, won its titles on its opponents’ off-days.
Who else would join a list like this? Every post-1982 Brazil team? Argentina 1986? The Leeds and Blackburn title sides of the 1990s? Chelsea now? The Rangers of the 1990s?

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Football’s Drinking Culture: A Tale of Two Halves

Posted on 28 July 2006 by JamesHamilton

There’s a silent revolution underway in British football’s perennial drinking culture. We’ve heard so much in recent years about drunken footballers that what’s happening now might seem impossible or ridiculous: but alcohol is leaving the pitch. On the terraces – no, make that “on the stands”, as the terraces are gone – on the stands, drinking has only just arrived.

These days, practically every player at every top club is teetotal for most of the year. Significant numbers of players at the top four clubs will never drink, not even on holiday or during the (ever shorter) close season. It’s a new development, which only really started at the end of the last century with the arrival of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. (We can assume, I think, that Roy Keane’s autobiography has done for the legend about Alex Ferguson ending the drinking culture at Manchester United). Wenger closed the players’ bar at Highbury – a little piece of architectural vandalism in the interests of a renewed sporting culture. He told his players that they were athletes, and must eat and drink as such. That all of this was revolutionary says more about British football than it does about Wenger. Football is the only sport in which he could be seen as a dietary groundbreaker, and the UK the only country.

The flow of lurid footballer drinking stories has slowed to a trickle, and those no longer written about top England stars. Ten years ago, men like Tony Adams and Paul Merson who were at the very top of the profession could conduct a career and keep terrible drink and drug problems on the go simultaneously. Now, Jermaine Pennant is seen as a loose cannon on the back of two such incidents – Football365 described him yesterday as drinking in the last chance saloon, without any trace of irony.

Yet what was true of footballers in the days when Jimmy Greaves, in his late twenties, was passing every afternoon in a friendly pub, is still true now. They’re very young men, very fit, well-off, with huge amounts of free time on their hands. Drink, and drugs, are off the menu, and some have given that as the reason for the spate of sexual scandals that have filled the gap left by the departure of drinking. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what you do?……

All of this coincides with a steep increase in drinking outside of professional football. Drinking per capita is in gradual decline in Germany and France: in the UK, it’s climbing at some 5% per year. (I’d appreciate some comment on that: the National Statistics are hard to read on this subject, I suspect deliberately). The usual explanation – footballers can’t keep up to Premiership standards while drinking – is probably the correct one. But it asks some interesting questions. If we exclude the kind of footballer who drinks, are we excluding talent in favour of people who can cope with the pressure without drinking but who lack that vital spark? Why can footballers turn their back on drink at the very moment that their fans are seriously upping their intake?

Part of the problem in talking about drinking is that the “common sense” view of it was formed before the Second World War. People who’ll now abuse Freud from a distance still buy into the alcohol belief system of a small number of religious businessmen in prohibition America. Alcoholism is a disease against which the sufferer is powerless.. 12 step therapies.. hitting absolute bottom..these are still, to this day, the dominant ideologies. They are at the heart of Tony Adams’ Second Chance Clinic. They are eighty years old.

My personal view is that alcoholism doesn’t exist – but excessive drinking does. Excessive drinking has a number of inter-related causes. Some form of underlying bad feeling in the sufferer – usually of an anxious nature. The fact that drink is absolutely superb at damping down anxious feelings (it then replaces them with all of the consequences of loss of inhibition, but at the time drinking starts, it’s getting rid of the anxiety that is the main thing). The fact that the best cure for a severe hangover is more drink (the home-made spirits drunk by prisoners in Colditz produced such severe hangovers that a number of men preferred to remain intoxicated for the duration than face the morning after, ever). The fact that extended drinking almost always brings a form of depression in its wake, added to the way drink is superb at providing a temporary escape from said depression. Occam’s Razor: there is no need to invoke any kind of disease model to explain drinking. Drinking is a compulsive disorder, different only from other such in that it has a momentum of its own. Deal with the underlying anxiety, and you’ll deal with the compulsion, and you’ll deal with the drinking. Except – like the vast majority of people, drinkers aren’t very liable to accept any kind of scenario that contains hints of mental illness, such is the stigma attached to even the minor neuroses that drive drinking. And the minority who do, have to stay sober long enough for a treatment programme to have any effect – but they are being treated so that they can stay sober – so it’s Catch 22.

Sports psychology, as it exists today, a stolid and over-complicated discipline to be exerted on a largely unintellectual target group, has a dark secret: the winners it sets out to create are not ordinary people. Gold medallists, winners, tend to be unpleasant, selfish, driven, moody individuals with cruel streaks and weak moral codes. That’s a huge generalisation, and there are a host of counter-examples. Suffice it to say that sport at the top is not dominated by the balanced, unmiserable people I hope to see leave my consulting rooms after treatment.

Living with a winner’s personality is unpleasant for those in the vicinity – but it’s not a great deal of fun for the winner themselves. Without drink, without recreational drugs, such people have to carry the burdens of themselves without the escape routes open to ordinary people with similar difficulties.

So my question – which was, does the removal of great British outlets such as drink militate against British sportspeople with the benefit and burden of a winner’s mentality, pushing them down their sport? Is an advantage being handed to players from cultures with non-alcoholic means of dealing with strong negative emotions – French, Italian, Spanish, South American cultures? (Argentina’s youth culture is vibrant and almost entirely teetotal).

It would be the ultimate irony if the modern England team, made up of relatively calm, quiet, clean-living young men possessed of strong technical skills, was to fail because it didn’t have the “extra gear”, the spark possessed in the past by the likes of Adams and co., just because the nature of British culture is such that you can’t get rid of drink without .. is it throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Because, after ten years of Labour in power, ten years of economic stability and growth, ten years of Britain being a relatively safe and settled place that’s no longer obsessed with national decline, that is confident in the face of Europe and the Far East… the population who have achieved all of this are drinking more, and more, and more.

To some extent, that’s because they can afford it. Good alcohol hasn’t changed much in supermarket price terms since 1990 – which means, in effect, that it’s getting cheaper at a time when incomes have risen. But the rise in consumption is about more than just price; lots of things are cheaper nowadays. Something else is going on. Something that’s more than just marketing (drink advertising is more restricted, not less, than a generation ago).

It’s often said that the British have always been drinkers – which is true. Football has always been close to the pub. British temperance was a purely middle-class phenomenon, unlike similar movements abroad. But that’s just cosmetic bandaging. We haven’t always been drinkers like this, and what’s going on now is the reversal of a long trend of declining drinking.

Before 1850, people drank because sources of clean water were few and far between, and that remained the case across much of the country well into the twentieth century. The popularity of tea has much the same kind of background to it. Once the water supply could be relied upon, it was no longer actually necessary to drink beer – and the long decline began, helped by the gradual easing of the experience of manual labour. (Watch the Mitchell/Kenyon films of Edwardian industrial England closely, and you’ll spot little stands at the factory gates, dispensing pints to desperately tired, desperately thirsty, desperate men).

Why are we drinking more now? I don’t honestly know. The closest thing to an explanation I have is Michael Marmot’s: creeping growth in all kinds of inequality in society is creating stress on the very cusp of our awareness, and we increase our drinking to damp it down (his version is infinitely more interesting and sophisticated, however).

I don’t see top footballers as part of that not-quite-awareness of inequality – their incomes are so huge as to become comical and nonsensical, unimaginable. For the record, I’m not convinced that celebrity culture has much to do with this, either – those who want that kind of thing have always wanted that kind of thing since the early Hollywood days, and the rest – the bulk of purchasers of Heat et al – indulge in it to laugh and mock.

It’s all much more subtle than that, more subtle even than the gradual pulling apart one can see in the statistics of national income. And the answer to my second question – why footballers can turn their back on drink when the rest of society is taking in more and more – isn’t part of all that.

The answer’s not one I hold terribly sacred to myself, and I’ll happily revise it. Not everyone needs to drink – the more balanced, calmer individuals have resources of their own to deal with the slings and arrows, and don’t have quite so much emotion to handle. Driving drink out of top football has created a bias towards such people – the top British players are more likely to be the calmer, quieter types – the Owens, the Campbells, the Defoes, the Downings. And what that might be doing, in the context of a growing British drinking culture, is excluding the men who have that extra, not always attractive, winner’s gear. You’ll see them in this season’s FA Cup playing for the feisty lower-league teams, pushing Premiership clubs all the way until their lesser fitness begins to tell.

Postscript: much of the above is tendentious, I know, so I’m positively inviting disagreement, alternate interpretations/scenarios, facts contradictory to my thesis etc. All welcome.

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An Idea of What’s Going On

Posted on 27 July 2006 by JamesHamilton

On my way from somewhere to someplace else, I touched in at the Kings Arms and found Italy v Australia on a little corner television surrounded by blokes. A couple of minutes in, the German television feed gave up the ghost, and we were left with the view from one solitary ITV camera. This was positioned behind one goal, and while we watched the match from this single perspective, the commentary decayed into a long series of abject apologies. But none were necessary.

Because, all of a sudden, it was possible to see the entire pitch, from height, at once. And, for me at least, the whole game suddenly opened up.

You could see the formations each team took up – and how these responded to passages of play. You could see the game move, how switching play from one side of the pitch to the other could pull men out of position – you could tell which players moved well off the ball, and which didn’t. We’re told that the real treat in watching Wayne Rooney play live is seeing his movement off the ball, how much more intelligent and adventurous he is in this compared with the average player. Because of the failure of the German feed, I could see why this would be.
I learned more about international football in the five minutes it took them to restore the feed and regain “normal” coverage than in years of conventional television. After five minutes of conventional camera angles, I began to feel deprived, as though the real game was being hidden from me, and I left.
This got me thinking, again, about how the strongly the impressions we get of football, of players, of teams, is governed by media filtering. I went to just one match last season, Fulham v Portsmouth. It was a strange game. Portsmouth, escaping relegation, fought and played as though their lives depended upon it. Fulham, safe by then, simply didn’t try – the first time I’d ever seen such a thing so obviously. Wayne Bridge did – and he had to play two roles, that of left-back, and that of playmaker, and it was easy to see why he was the only England player on the pitch. Steed Malbranque, now wantaway, also put his back into it. But overall, it was a crass, skill-free, violent encounter, played in front of an audience that gave no hint of being interested in anything like the beautiful game.

On Match of the Day, that terrible ninety minutes was transformed. Suddenly, it was fast-paced, breathless, subtle; there was plot and counterplot; periods of domination from one team or the other. The pointless longball chaos I’d witnessed simply wasn’t there. Graceless lunks became gloss-tanned superstars.
So much for the modern game. Regular readers will know that I’m interested in the history of football. Not the kind of Hunter Davies in-for-a-laugh chippy big-boots-and-short-hair-cuts sort of history. That, frankly, is for children – and unfortunate children at that. I want a different sense, to recapture the feeling of football when it was 1898, or 1904, or 1927 and hadn’t yet been any later than that –
On the 3rd of March, 1902, England drew 0-0 with Wales. The England players that day, including Robert Crompton, weren’t forgotten people, moustachioed comic sepia portraits, but the top players, real men with real voices, appetites and attitudes. Was it a dull game? “..all the Englishmen played in a half-hearted manner..” moaned the Times the next day. Plus ca change.. Boredom, more than any other feeling or emotion, drops from the historical record. The ennui of watching a stalemate play out on a rutted, dusty piece of ground in Wrexham; the clouds of tobacco smoke idling over the stands; the out-of-work boys leaning dully against lamp standards in the street outside; all gone. Whatever was in Steve Bloomer’s mind, his goal disallowed, his long, uncomfortable, expensive journey home stretching ahead of him, gone. “W. Meredith”, not yet Manchester United’s chawtobacca Welsh Wizard of the Dribble, apparently played well, but we’ll never see it as I don’t think the game was filmed.
And those that were filmed, frustrate. The movie camera was taken to a game very early on – even considering the astonishingly swift growth of moving pictures following its heavily-bookmarked arrival in 1896. It was a Blackburn game, I believe – and the camera is in one of the stands behind the goal. For a few seconds, you can see players flickering up ahead through a fog of interference – and then nothing. There’s no sense of play, of tactics, of formations.
Nor is there in the far richer Mitchell and Kenyon archive, now safely in the hands of the British Film Institute. Several complete films – by which we mean something lasting 3-5 minutes only – of matches are on the BFI DVD “Electric Edwardians” (not to be missed for all sorts of reasons). Here, the camera is at ground level, at the side of the pitch. These were commercial films, not the work of sports enthusiasts, and, like Match of the Day and its imitators since, they attempt to “tell the story” in a way calculated to open their audience’s pocketbook. So we see a lot of the crowd, sometimes being whipped up by Mitchell/Kenyon-hired showmen; we see the players come out; we see a few snatches of play. So few and so quick are these that you can’t even tell if the game is skilful or just a controlled fight between 22 stocky men in heavy boots.

It’s hugely interesting, and hugely frustrating. I want to know – was the game different; could they pass, dribble, swerve? All we have are anecdotes, for all that these snatches of film add up to hours of footage. We know that the bodyswerve was widely considered to be dishonest – and its prophet, Walter Hogan, was practically exiled, going on to coach the 1950s Magyars. We know that players didn’t generally bend the ball; we know that the use of the side of the foot was a Scottish trait. But we can’t actually SEE any of this.

Somewhere out there, there’s a brief film – ten seconds’ worth? – of Billy Meredith, toothpick in mouth, dribbling down the wing. I’ve seen it once. That brief flash looks like brilliance. And then it’s gone.

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Plus ca change: 1925 and the Off Side Rule

Posted on 26 July 2006 by JamesHamilton

In June 1925, at a meeting in Paris, football’s international governing body voted through a change in the off side rule: Julian Carosi summarises the reasons why:

Defending players had this law worked to such a fine art, that in the early 1920’s the full-backs had developed an almost fool-proof tactic to catch attacking players off-side. They would position themselves almost up to the halfway line, one staggered slightly behind the other, enabling them to catch attacking players off-side with such success, that the game had so many stoppages for off-side offences, it became monotonous. Credit for exposing and exploiting the old rule is usually given to a full-back who played for Newcastle, Billy McCracken, who with this full-back partner would advance to as near the halfway line as possible (a player cannot be off-side in his own half), moving up quickly and timing their runs, so as they would often catch two or three forwards off-side. Opponents could find no way to master this tactic, which very quickly caught on with other teams.

The rule change came into effect in the 1925-26 season. Now, only two players were required between the attacker and the goal line when the ball was last played.

The effects were immediate, at least in Football League Division One, as it was then. In an article complaining at the poor quality of foreign players in the English league (Scottish players, back then, but a familiar complaint now, encapsulated in the charming phrase “Carlos Kickaball”), The Times looked back on a year of the new set-up:

It was hoped that the alteration of the off side law would make for improvement, but unhappily expectations have not been realised. As a matter of fact the change has brought about an even greater looseness in the constructive art of the game. It is said, and probably truly, that the new off side law does not demand any change of methods, that all the fresh formations which were tried last season were unnecessary. But today every team is far more apprehensive in the matter of defence than used to be the case when an opponent was only legitimately placed if there were three men in front of him when the ball was last kicked. The result has been a tendency to concentrate on defence by half backs and this has meant a weakening in attack. At the present time it is not unusual to see a gap of twenty or more yards between half backs and forwards and, in such conditions, there must inevitably be a lack of combination between the two sections of the team. The Times 25 October 1926

Julian Carosi writes again here (excellent site, incidentally)

The alteration from three to two dramatically decreased the off-side offences. In the season 1925-26, goals scored in the Football League were a third up at 6,373 compared to the old off-side law era 1924-25 season’s tally of 4,700. Although crowds relished the glut of goals, perceptive observers saw a sudden decline in the quality of the game. The law change also meant that the defending players were forced to play squarer to each other and much nearer to their goal – but not too near as to allow the attacker to shoot without first beating them to the ball. Attacking players began to use the long ball played between the two defenders, and made more use of their wingers who (with only 2 full-backs being employed) had ample space to ply their trade.

In 1925, Yorkshireman, Herbert Chapman (a modest player with half a dozen clubs, and later a manager with Huddersfield) eventually became manager of Arsenal. Chapman (on advice from the veteran inside-forward Arsenal player Charlie Buchan) changed the role of the all-purpose midfield player, and evolved and refined a new extra defensive position called the ‘centre-half’, whose job it became to block off the ‘through ball’, and to cover the wingers if they beat the other two defenders. The ‘stopper’ had arrived; and other teams soon followed this idea. The standard 2-3-5 formation (two full-backs, three half-backs and five forwards), became 3-3-4. Deep-lying inside forwards began to adopt pincer-movement goal-raiding tactics known as the ‘W’ plan. Having a centre-half in the team, meant one less player concentrating on attacking, thus enforcing an initial negative type of defensive play that has taken many years to develop into the more offensive and exiting counter-attacking style that we enjoy today.

The long ball game, the yawning gap between the forwards and the rest of the team, the skill deficit.. plus ca change, and here’s that Times article on the England team as they played Ireland that year:

Because there were so many exciting incidents the game was a popular success, and because the English side were three times a goal behind and yet saved the match it was said that here at last was a team who would roll up their sleeves and fight to the bitter end. But from an English point of view the game was a comparative failure. To have been a success Ireland should have been handsomely beaten. To appraise the merit of England’s performance the strength of the opposition must be taken into account, for it is as true today as ever it was that a team play as well as the other fellows let them. At the present time Irish football is impoverished seriously.

Now, all of this has its comic side, to put it mildly. We would appear to have had the same problems for a full eighty years, but so greedy is the wandering black hole of football memory that all this can be blamed on Sven. The Times of 1926 wouldn’t have done – this is from the same article!

It has always been the policy of Scotland to play the 11 cleverest football players they could command against England and to do this it has occasionally been necessary to place men out of their customary positions. One has seen a centre-forward on the wing and a wing man in an inside position. England would have nothing to lose from following this example. If there are no half backs why not create them? Clubs are often driven to do this, and there have been a good many instances of ordinary forwards being converted into brilliant half backs.

The press might have been as wildly off in 1926 as I think they are now.. in which case, they have a true “living tradition” of being wildly off, which must be passed down from generation unto generation in some kind of occult ceremonial in bars metres deep under Fleet Street..

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Diego Forlan

Posted on 21 July 2006 by JamesHamilton

Busy, so no chance to provide anything especially interesting.

But I need no excuse to offer you this priceless piece of Forlaneania.

It keeps up this site’s distinct United bias, and demonstrates why he’s secretly missed so very much.

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Not Much Left..

Posted on 20 July 2006 by JamesHamilton

Incredible as it might seem, there appears to be more surviving footage of Sheffield United’s Edwardian goalkeeper William “Fatty” Foulkes than of Manchester United’s great midfielder Duncan Edwards. I am away for the weekend, and this is all I’ve been able to track down.. inevitably, it’s hung with mourning:

Youtube: Matt Busby

Burnley film maker Sam Hanna took some colour film of the 1957 FA Cup Final, which the Babes lost to Villa, but that’s tucked away in TWI’s archive and isn’t online.

It helps that there’s plenty of Puskas left to enjoy.


Here’s some Foulkes – in the 1901 FA Cup Final. Significant because? Answers in the comments, please.

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Violence on and off the pitch

Posted on 20 July 2006 by JamesHamilton

Just for fun today.. some remarkable statistics from Football on Trial by Murphy, Williams and Dunning, but first, this excerpt:

Herbert Carter has died at Carlisle from injuries received while playing football last week, when he was accidentally kicked in the abdomen. Two other football players also died on Saturday from injuries received in the course of play, vis. Ellam of Sheffield, and Parks of Woodsley. These, together with the case of Partington, who died on Wednesday last, make a total of four deaths during the past week. Leicester Daily Mercury 15 Nov 1898

That rather puts into perspective the various statues, plaques and other memorials to the glorious dead that are appearing at football grounds the country wide, doesn’t it? But not as much as this:

Deaths in Yorkshire Rugby

1890/91 23

1891/92 22

1892/3 26

That’s just in Yorkshire!

And finally, because I did promise some off-the-field action too, this:

On the teams returning to the pavilion, thousands of spectators broke into the playing pitch, and proceeded to tear up the goalposts. Mounted constables arrived, and in the melee that followed, more than 50 persons were injured.

When the barricading was broken down, the rioters piled the debris, poured whisky over it, and set the wood ablaze. The flames spread to the pay-boxes, which were only some 20 yards from a large tenement of dwellings. Great alarm prevailed, particularly when the firemen were attacked by the mob, and prevented from extinguishing the fire, for no sooner had they run out the hose than the crowd jumped on it, and, cutting it with knives and stones, rendered the efforts of the firemen useless. The woodwork of the boxes was completely destroyed…

Stones and bottles were freely thrown, while at least two persons were treated for stab wounds. Over a score of constables were included among the injured as well as several firemen.

The mob repeatedly rescued the prisoners from the police, and ultimately it was deemed advisable to clear the field without taking the rioters into custody. Leicester Daily Mercury April 1909 (concerning an Old Firm derby, of course).

QUIZ: I asked you to identify five names of coaches from five quotations each giving an insight into the mind of that coach. The correct answers were:

  1. 1Luis Filipe Scolari
  2. 2Luis Filipe Scolari
  3. 3Luis Filipe Scolari
  4. 4Luis Filipe Scolari
  5. 5Luis Filipe Scolari

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Manchester United 1992-2006: Playing With Statistics

Posted on 18 July 2006 by JamesHamilton

Frustrating Statistics…

As a break from a staggeringly tedious update to my professional website, I’ve been amusing myself by trying to work out which was the greatest Manchester United side of the Premiership era. The task has proven trickier than I expected.

For one thing, common sense would dictate ruling out the post-Beckham, post-Stam side. They just haven’t been as good.. have they? I’ll return to them in a moment.

I see three distinct United phases in the Premiership. There’s the Cantona side, 1992- 1995, who were essentially dismantled overnight after the twin defeats of May 1995 – to Blackburn in the league, and Everton in the FA Cup. They are followed, with famous abruptness, by the “Kids”, who continue more or less unaltered until the achievement of the treble in 1999. I’d distinguish the post-treble “Kids” from the earlier variety, although the significant arrivals – Stam, Van Nistelrooy, Veron – trickle in either side of Barcelona. And then.. post-Beckham, since whose departure United have won no titles – or come close, it has to be said.

One of the more bizarre interludes of my career was when I was asked to hypnotise Jim White of the Telegraph. The idea was that I’d make him think he was Jose Mourinho, and then he’d replay the Champions League Semi-Final defeat to Liverpool on Championship Manager on a screen the size of the wall to see if he could alter the course of history. I don’t know whether Jim hated the idea more than I did, and the shameful episode was never screened. (He did beat Liverpool, though). Anyway, I spoke to Jim by telephone a day or two beforehand, so I could get the measure of him and find out something about where he was coming from, football-wise. In the course of the conversation, this issue – which was the best United side – came up, and he plumped for the Kids, a team, he said, that knew the meaning of the word more than any other he’d ever seen.

My own gut choice is the earlier, Hughes/Ince/Kanchelskis/Bruce/Sharpie/Giggs team. The sheer physical presence, the speed of their play, the monstrous destructiveness they could unleash onto opponents who couldn’t cope.. and I’m borne out by statistics. I think.. the 92 points garnered in 1993-4 wasn’t matched by any of the later sides, and only the post-treble team came close, with 91 in 1999-2000. And that early team scored 80 goals in the season twice on the trot.

It isn’t the whole story, though, is it? That early team had decent opposition in only one season, Blackburn in 1994-5. At that time, a curse operated over anyone who challenged United for the title – Leeds and Blackburn were both quickly relegated, Aston Villa disappeared from contention; even Arsene Wenger found retention of the title impossible. Wenger’s first side – that of the young Vieira and Petit – didn’t emerge until 1997, not getting into gear until ’98, by which time we’re almost halfway through our period. And it was in the presence of Wenger’s team that the post-treble team scored 97 goals in 1999-2000, 79 the year later, and 87 the year after that.

These might have been great deeds, but were accompanied by a great sense of anti-climax and disappointment. United’s assured fate was to repeat the Champions League triumph, to rule Europe in the noughties as they had England in the nineties.. and their failure to do this, to come close indeed to Real Madrid as the galacticos swept all before them, is what’s remembered now. And those 87 goals… were scored in the inexplicable absence of Jaap Stam, and United actually finished third that year. One last meaningless title, in the worst season of the Premiership’s history (United won with 83 points, by no means their worst, but only 74 goals. The Kids first title came with 82 points and 73 goals, but those came with hope and promise; the 2002-3 title was won on plastic.) Then Beckham left.

But in defence of the early side, it could be argued that their lack of European impact was entirely down to the foreign players rule (you were limited in your ability to field players of foreign nationality, and back then, Scotland, Wales and Ireland counted as foreign, something that would have crippled the Liverpool and Forest teams of the seventies, although not, probably, the Kids. And the break-up of the team was provoked by a season in which they scored 88 points and 80 goals yet contrived to come second, and also reached the FA Cup Final. Such underachievement required harsh measures, naturally.

So they remain my top United side of recent years.. but I said I’d come back to the side United have now – call it the Rooney team. Last season, they finished second, with 83 points and 72 goals. For a brief moment, it looked as though Chelsea could be caught – for a brief moment, I said. In the period under consideration – fourteen years – United have exceeded that points total only four times. They’ve scored more goals on 8 occasions, which is why the Manchester United Encyclopedia has a special section entitled We Often Score Six. Last season’s performance would have won seven titles of the previous fourteen. Only, it was done, this time, without a midfield. (United’s midfield last season is arguably the worst amongst the sides avoiding relegation last term). And the players who were there, spent the year being called out for lack of effort. Not a great team, then… but a mysteriously great final score at the end of the season. How did they do it? And what will they do if a midfield does materialise in the autumn?

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Sir Clive Woodward on England’s World Cup 2006

Posted on 17 July 2006 by JamesHamilton

I’ve finally got my hands on a copy of Sir Clive’s interview for 442 Magazine. He doesn’t disappoint.

I’ve mentioned before that I think Southampton are very, very lucky to have this exceptional man in their ranks. I’ll go further and say that Steve McClaren would do well to have him as part of his set-up.

What Woodward brings to any team – to any organisation behind the team – is a rich combination of flawless attention to detail, the infinite capacity to take pains (“to do everything humanly possible” is a Woodward catchphrase, not made in vain) and complete openness to new thinking and ideas. His approach brought real success to the England rugby team, who for a while were not only winning rugby matches, but doing it in considerable style. Woodward’s great team probably peaked slightly before the World Cup that they eventually won, but even when their form dipped in Australia they were still unmistakeably the best team, with the best preparation.

When a man of that calibre calls England “not properly prepared”, you’d hope that someone in the right place would listen. But as he says,

I hope we learn our lesson, but I doubt we will. Already we seem more interested in who’s going to be the new captain than how to progress!

He spends quite a lot of his article talking about penalties, and what he says is especially revealing about the English psyche when it comes to improving their performance. After 1998, fans and press wanted to be reassured that the team now “practiced penalties”. Realise that by “practice penalties”, they mean just that – spend a while on the practice ground taking shots from the spot. And leaving it at that, because, as Michael Owen said recently, you can’t reproduce the pressure of a shoot-out on the training ground, and it’s hard to reproduce the physical action you’ve practiced when, as a result of nerves, you can’t feel your legs. Sir Clive says

We’re told England were practising in training, but what are they practising? It’s no good practising the wrong technique – all you’re learning is how to do it wrong. Penalties are coachable. Our players should have been practising every day for the last four years. Does Ernie Els practice four foot putts on the few days before a Major, or does he work on it 365 days a year, hour after hour?

I’ve been told many times that you can’t replicate the atmosphere and intensity of a penalty shoot-out. Maybe not, but you can work on the technique of striking the ball correctly and at a height that gives the best chance of scoring.

And, as part of his blueprint for future success, this:

A penalty shoot-out should be introduced after every league game for England players as a priority in tournament years.

There’s much, much more – on team preparation, playing under pressure, (“Why was nothing done about Frank Lampard’s confidence?”), the attitude of the FA, and some encouragement for the new coach:

It’s Steve McClaren’s responsibility now and he has to prove himself. At least he thinks outside the box, uses new technology and draws inspiration from more progressive sports. That’s what Klinsmann’s done with Germany. He was ridiculed for using strange experts, but he silenced his critics by turning an average squad into one that performed above their potential and very nearly went all the way. We did something similar with the England rugby team: the players were sceptical of unusual methods, until they saw how they were improving.

Sir Clive glances at something in that paragraph that perhaps deserves spelling out clearly.

The growing wealth of the Premiership, and money spent on new stadia, and on new training facilities, might lead you to the assumption that our training methods have come along by the same amount. They almost certainly haven’t. When Simon Clifford asked why footballers spent so little time training by comparison with athletes in other sports, he was met with guilty sniggers and then with silence. He’s noted that players are still relatively undertrained compared to people in other sports, and I note that his protege, Micah Richards, is named in Henry Winter’s team for 2010. For a point of comparison, here’s the daily training schedule for squash champion Peter Nichol:

Nicol’s programme consisted of a 30-minute run at 7am followed by breakfast and then a lung-busting two-hour workout on court (without a break) immediately followed by another cardio session. After lunch he would put his body through three further hours of physical hardship both on the court and in the weights room before eating a carbohydrate-loaded dinner..

Clive Woodward’s blueprint for success includes this, too:

Profile all players to establish which of them can perform at world-class levels under pressure. Leave out those who cannot reach the level required, even if they are superstars.

That issue was brought to his attention by the British Army. He’d taken the England rugby squad on a weekend exercise run by the Army, and towards its end, the exercise leaders took Clive to one side and advised him that, were his team soldiers, there were some of their number that those exercise leaders wouldn’t want next to them in battle. Clive, being a mature adult, doesn’t name the names. But he took the suggestion – that people who weren’t pulling in the team’s direction were sapping its mental energy – entirely seriously. And acted upon it.
I think it would be unfair to suggest that Sven didn’t understand this point or apply it – but Sir Clive would take the whole thing to another level. My personal suspicion is that there are relatively few among England’s more skilful players who would pass muster: I’d certainly love to see the results of any such profiling. My guess is that from the current generation, we’d be left with Crouch, Owen, Rooney, Neville, Terry and Beckham.

I can’t see profiling working for football just at the moment. The English idea of what is represents a good temperament for football is a long way away from the calm under pressure of the 2003 rugby players. The suspicion of psychology is still deeply ingrained: it’s all “mind games”… let’s use common sense and play four – four – fucking – two!… Just imagine what the players who fail to pass muster will do with their tabloid columns, imagine the response of the press every time one of the rejected stars turns in a good game at league level.

We’re not ready, yet, as a footballing country, to listen to the likes of Woodward and Clifford. What’s more, in the wake of Sven’s departure, our thirst for learning something new has gone away for a while. But with both men currently involved in the game, if at rather undercover levels, I suspect that this is a revolution from within, given time.

The main obstacle in its path is that we are going to have to decide to be intelligent about the game. It’s my impression that football is an area where intelligent people want to let down their brainy hair for a while, and enjoy being stupid and overly straightforward, even bigoted. I don’t think we’re ready to be intelligent about football, and I don’t think we want to be intelligent about football.
UPDATE: Some of you will have read Dr. Ken Bray’s new book, How to Score. Here’s an article in the Guardian from two years ago, reflecting his thoughts on penalties – which bear a strong resemblance to Woodward’s.

NOTE: I’ve edited out some comments made in the earlier version of this post that referred to other bloggers. Felt it didn’t really add anything, and no point in being unpleasant if you don’t really have to be.

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