Archive | October, 2006

Books of the Year, People of the Year

Posted on 30 October 2006 by JamesHamilton

I need something to distract myself from Chris Oakley’s execrable contribution to the Guardian’s football pages this morning (really – it would help if it were funny, but it’s like being trapped in a lift) so, completely off the cuff, I’m going to name my books and people of the footballing year 2006. If someone comes up on the rails in the next two months, I’ll revise, obviously.

Books:David Peace’s The Damned United was far and away the biggest surprise. It’s probably the first football novel that succeeds as a novel, whilst remaining about football. On the face of it, it follows Brian Clough’s life from the moment of his career-ending injury to his sacking by Leeds, but that’s almost incidental and not the reason why the novel is worth picking up. There’s been decent football fiction in the past – Bill Naughton’s The Goalkeeper’s Revenge, set amongst working class boys in the industrial north of England, and J.L.Carr’s How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup, in which a foreign coach takes a village team to etc., but Peace operates at another level entirely. (Carr’s novel isn’t really at a level with his others, and certainly not with A Month In The Country).

In terms of the best non-fiction sporting book of the year, I’m torn between The Italian Job by Luca Vialli and Simon Barnes’ book-length meditation, The Meaning of Sport, from which this:

..They are generally referred to as ‘characters’: where would the game be without characters? There just aren’t the characters any more, and so forth. Anyone can be a character, and it is generally the hallmark of inferior performance. To be a character requires some kind of superstructure built onto a personality: as compensation for the inadequacies of the original personality.

Chris Oakley can whistle for that much insight, let alone the ability to write like that.

Vialli’s book is, as far as I am aware, pretty much the only one we have that has made a serious attempt to answer questions of English football from outside the English cultural wagon ring. Why less ball skill, why such uninterest in tactical possibilities, why the managerial merry-go-round, why is the English football press not really interested in football – all and more deeply explored without apparent agenda or mockery or dislike. It’s incredibly dense, slow reading simply because of the sheer amount of material on every page. I think it renders just about every other “state of the game” book of the last ten years utterly pointless. It’s all here.

What about some players? This was supposed to have been Rooney’s year, but injury has restricted his contribution to a variety of interesting sideshows. It may be that in six months’ time we’ll know that what he is doing now is inspiring a new Manchester United side to a league title and a Champions League Final, but that will make him 2007′s man.

No prizes for guessing that Peter Crouch is my outstanding player of 2006. He began as the most fringe of fringe England players, still fresh from what was for most commentators a shock move to Liverpool (“Well, I was surprised,” WSC would have us believe he told them). From there, via boos from “the best fans in the world” he progressed to a permanently-good position on the all-time England international scoring table, some genuinely outstanding goals and the enduring memory of his wonderful, brave performance against Portugal. A team man and a fine man, he is being primed by the England set-up to be their next fall guy, but he’s young enough still to return when our traditional English managers run out of excuses and fall on their swords.

A warm mention also for Owen Hargreaves and Theo Walcott, both of whom have amply demonstrated now why they were in the World Cup squad. They take into 2007 the uncomfortable silence of their critics, who were in many cases older men who had watched a lot of football and perhaps should have known better. They certainly should have understood better.

My manager of the year is Adrian Boothroyd. This isn’t just because he took Watford up into the Premiership when all he had been asked was to avoid relegation. It’s because he’s going to keep them there this season, and because under him Ben Foster is turning into the best English goalkeeper since the peerless David Seaman. Given poor Chris Kirkland’s endless injury travails, and Paul Robinson’s ill luck, we need another good ‘un, and one’s coming.

The match of the year is of course that absurd jumpers-for-goalposts FA Cup Final. But I’d have preferred a West Ham win.

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Fact and Curiousity 1963

Posted on 28 October 2006 by JamesHamilton

Some fun snippets taken from the Gillette Book of Cricket and Football (ed. Gordon Ross 1963):

Middlesborough were beaten 9-0 by Blackburn Rovers on November 6th, 1954, and kept the same team the following week.

Six players who figured in the same position with Football League clubs in London have represented England in Test match cricket – Patsy Hendren (Brentford), Leslie Ames (Clapton Orient), John Arnold (Fulham), Laurie Fishlock (Millwall), Bill Edrich (Tottenham Hotspur), and Denis Compton (Arsenal). All of them played at outside-left.

John Hewie, Charlton Athletic, had never been to Scotland before he played for Scotland against England at Hampden Park on April 14th, 1956. Hewie was born in South Africa and his father in Scotland.

Wilfred Minter, playing for St Albans City against Dulwich Hamlet in 1922 scored seven goals. His team lost 7-8.

Which last reminds me at one remove of the ten greatest sporting come-backs of all time.

Charlton

5-1 down with half an hour to go, having played most of the match with 10 men, they won 7-6. Second Division, The Valley, 21 December 1957

Huddersfield manager Bill Shankly watched in horror as Charlton’s hero of the hour – dashing left-winger Johnny Summers (pictured) – engineered the most remarkable comeback in football history, scoring five and just for good measure setting-up the other two. From being four down, Summers’s goals – including a six-minute hat-trick – gave Charlton a 6-5 lead with two minutes left. Huddersfield promptly equalised, only for Summers to lay on the winner for John Ryan, who scored with the final kick of the game. ‘Amazing, incredible, fantastic…’ as one reporter put it at the time. Summers later revealed that he changed his boots at half-time after his old pair had started falling apart.

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Owen and Wilkinson

Posted on 27 October 2006 by JamesHamilton

I just want to draw this to your attention – a conversation in The Times between Jonny Wilkinson and Michael Owen. Pure More Than Mind Games material:

“For a long time I interpreted this training regime as a double strength,” Wilkinson says. “I would go into a game feeling I doubly deserved to win.” Owen counters: “I wouldn’t do that extra hour and a half. I just always find a positive. I can play poorly and make a spin on it, convince myself. I know people who have to train well or they feel they won’t play well — David James, for instance. If he doesn’t train well then three hours later in the hotel he is still talking about it.

“I don’t think that I am a particularly good trainer. I certainly won’t sit there thinking: ‘I missed that last chance on Friday afternoon, so I’m in trouble for Saturday.’ ”

“I envy that in you,” Wilkinson says, “that faith in your natural ability, the confidence of knowing that you will score and that if it doesn’t happen this week, it’ll happen next week. That’s brilliant. I am trying to learn that.”

Wilkinson asks if footballers train as robotically as he does. Owen: “Well, I’m not sure I’ve met a footballer who’s as dedicated as . . . ”

Wilkinson: “Obsessed, you mean.”

“I wouldn’t say you’re the norm in rugby,” Owen says, as if in defence of his sport. “It’s you who are a lot different.”

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Sports Psychology – Two New Paragraphs

Posted on 26 October 2006 by JamesHamilton

Whilst I work on something longer, two additions to the sports psychology summary:

The difference between sports psychology and psychotherapy/psychiatry is well illustrated by the fact that some of the attributes of top sportsmen are regarded by psychotherapists/psychiatrists as undesirable. Top sportspeople devote themselves entirely to their sport – neglecting family, social life, career. Some of the attributes of top sportsmen – the desire to crush the opposition, to win because it means that others lose – do not translate easily into success in normal life or into moral behaviour as most non-sportspeople would recognise it.
Broadcasters such as the BBC spend a lot of time presenting sport as an “inspiration to youth” – without much thought being given to the kind of life sport might be encouraging young people to adopt. One of the drivers behind the growth of organised sport in nineteenth century Britain was that sport encouraged moral behaviour – but it’s often lamented that the “Corinthian ideals” of Victorian sport included a hang-up about winning, and included the sense that sport was a form of training for life, not an end in itself. Both of those accusations are true, and neither of them excuse national broadcasters for missing the point that sport is not the ideal moral life compass that they would like it to be. It says something about our culture that Nelson Mandela – or pick the political/intellectual figure of your choice if Mandela offends – is held up as a role model in the UK somewhat less frequently than Steven Gerrard or Paula Radcliffe.

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David James on Psychology in Football

Posted on 21 October 2006 by JamesHamilton

Footballers as trainspotters? Perhaps. I can still remember my surprise when I learned that most pop band musicians were insecure geeks and not the sex gods their publicists wanted them to be.

David’s is an interesting article, but comes hurtling off the rails at exactly the place you might expect it to. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

Psychology in football is still poo…#8209;pooed, but it is interesting. The best teams have a combination of psychological make-ups – your obsessives in the back line, and one or two in midfield, who increase your chances of winning through their hard work and repeated practice. Then you have the flair players who display flashes of genius, of brilliance and unpredictability, who could almost be dubbed ‘bipolar’. The ‘bipolar’ sets the game alight, unsettles the opposition, but you can’t rely on him to win games. Perhaps some of the most gifted players of all suffered a medical condition similar to bipolar disorder – their on- and off…#8209;the…#8209;field activities marked by soaring highs and crushing lows.

Most Premiership teams don’t employ a psychologist and Portsmouth are no exception. It was only under Steve McClaren that the England camp got one, despite all Sven’s talk of respect for the practice. Managers still like to think they know what’s best for their team and there’s a stigma attached to psychology. In football you’re not supposed to put your hand up and ask for help with your mental health.

The intruding HTML is there in the original, and I’m leaving it in – there’s something mildly Freudian about the way the code goes west at the same time as the thinking. I believe David when he says that his teams haven’t had sports psychologists, as he makes the classic error, confusing them with psychotherapists and psychiatrists. He’s more than smart enough to take that distinction in his stride, even to find it interesting. Anyway, here’s the link to a slightly longer explanation of where he’s gone wrong.

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Sunset and Floodlighting

Posted on 20 October 2006 by JamesHamilton

The first floodlit league match in England took place in 1956 – Portsmouth v Newcastle (the home team lost 2-0, and for a variety of reasons, the game was a miserable experience for almost all concerned).

Back then – and for the seventy years preceding – kick-off on a Saturday afternoon had been at 3p.m. or half an hour either side of 3 (old programmes give kick-offs of 2.30, 3, 3.10, 3.30 etc.).

On the shortest day of the year, the sun goes down at c. 3.50p.m G.M.T. in London. Say, 4.30-5 for the bulk of winter.

Wouldn’t that have made pre-floodlit games dark for much of the second half?

It’s hard to see how a club could reasonably kick off earlier in pre-War days, simply because Saturday morning was work time for most people, and earlier kick-offs simply wouldn’t have attracted a crowd. (By 1920, cinema would have been making significant inroads anyway – why drag yourself straight back out again to see the match when you can catch your breath, have a meal, and then go out in the evening with your wife? Far more respectable…)

I note that Mitchell and Kenyon, filming sport in pre-WW1 days, tended to ignore the second half because in the gathering dusk, the lighting was inadequate for their purposes.

It must have been black as night come the final whistle in pre-floodlighting days. How did they play? It must have had some influence over results, but looking through old match reports I can find no reference to this at all. Fog, on the other hand, generates endless bleating about bad visibility and players unable to see each other. Am I missing something?

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Paul McGrath

Posted on 19 October 2006 by JamesHamilton

Some thoughts generated by this short but extremely revealing interview in the Telegraph with the former Republic of Ireland defender Paul McGrath.

You can build up a frightening and heartbreaking checklist from it in moments:

  1. Heavy drinking built into his life by his mid-20s
  2. Resorting to drinking Domestos and bleach
  3. At least four suicide attempts
  4. Illegal drug use
  5. Drink-driving charges
  6. Arrested on at least one occasion

Of course, there is nothing specific to football in any of this. This behaviour is a common anglophone response to a life that generates emotion and feeling that can’t be bourne otherwise.

In footballing terms, though, this is the flipside to my complaint about media coverage of sports psychology. Because whether or not you think psychotherapy or psychiatry any good, this is the sort of situation they exist to help with.

Given the nature of the situation, I wonder how it is that columnists making that typical white flapping coats category error, can bring themselves to do so in that giggling, playground tone? Or how, after they’ve done so, they can urge this or that troubled player to “tackle your demons?”

Little wonder then that the likes of McGrath and Gascoigne – warm, smart men as well as fantastic players – can go through the whole of their (truncated) careers without receiving anything resembling proper help.

When it’s hooliganism, or racism, or cheating, or financial corruption, football columnists by and large acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and reflect it in their writing. It’s not so when an important player runs into real personal problems. Ian Ridley and Simon Barnes are exceptions to a depressing rule, one that Sol Campbell’s recent treatment shows no sign of going away any time soon.

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Jose, Cech, Reading: Did It Work?

Posted on 18 October 2006 by JamesHamilton

An email to the Football365 Mailbox suggests that Mourinho’s kicking up rough about Petr Cech’s treatment at Reading was all about distracting attention from his team’s preparation for the match against Barcelona. I agree… to some extent.

When it comes to getting ready for big games, Mourinho is Clough’s man. Keep your players distracted, be a lightning conductor for the press so that they are left in comparative peace, don’t let them obsess or dwell on what’s to come. If Mourinho’s abuse of Reading was with that in mind, it worked superbly. As the email says, we’ve heard almost nothing all week about Lampard’s form, or Shevchenko’s – and the substitute, substitute goalkeeper was able to gather himself in relative seclusion.

And it’s what he’s done a hundred times before. His “war” with Arsene Wenger was all about taking the rod away from his players and onto his own back (and it had the advantageous side effect of making the Arsenal manager look weak in front of his own players) – and everyone will remember Jose predicting, correctly, not only the Barcelona line-up of two years ago, but the name of the referee. (He failed to predict his own team on that occasion, but even the most astute of punters etc.) So if the Reading comments had the same result in mind, it wouldn’t be anything new.
And yet, and yet. Contrary to what the press would put forward, Mourinho does not have a track record of tasteless lying to cover up for his team. He does have one for apologising when he has spoken out of turn (Wenger received an apology for the “voyeur” remark and has never proffered one for his many occasions of blindness to the behaviour of his players).

On the last occasion Mourinho was seen to have behaved thus, it was once again Barcelona week at Stamford Bridge. He criticised the referee (it turned out that he was hardly alone in his opinion of the man’s abilities, or in his feeling that nepotism and not talent had pushed that particular man in black forwards). He accused Barca of visiting the referee’s dressing room at half time (which turned out to be true, long after). Chelsea failed to back him up – and very nearly lost their manager.

Mourinho is now one of those men who the English love to hate – he’s a moaner, apparently, that blackest of sins! and he “drags Chelsea’s name through the mud” (he does? as much as his Chief Executive, or his Owner?).

I suspect his unpopularity comes not from these things but from a darker place: jealousy – of his talent, his close family, his talent for the memorable phrase, his looks, his money… dislike of his failure to play up to English fantasies of the “old fashioned” manager (the “old fashioned manager” was a corrupt, incompetent tyrant: Busby et al were anything but old fashioned).. dislike of his failure to be English. Dislike of his willingness to take risks – dislike of his success in living up to them. So long as he sounds like Ray Winstone, the English are willing to hero-worship a clever rogue – they’re even willing to have him as England manager. But don’t be handsome, don’t be articulate, don’t be intelligent, don’t be right..
I’m just not sure that his complaints about Cech’s treatment are media management – or that, quietly, long afterwards, as ever, he might not prove to have had a point. I mentioned the other day that I had had Cech’s injury. My ambulance, once the police (who at that point were still convinced that I’d fallen over drunk and was only claiming to have been mugged) could be persuaded to call it, took an hour to get 100 yards up the road from the Royal Free to Hampstead Police Station. The Reading ambulance men have complained about Mourinho – but he didn’t complain about them. One day, just perhaps, long after it’s all forgotten, he might prove to have had a point.

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The Ball is Round: The Crowd is White

Posted on 18 October 2006 by JamesHamilton

Interesting article on the Guardian’s Sport Blog on what they perceive as a gap. 8% of the British population come from an ethnic minority (4% asian, 2% black, figures which in my view combine unlike with unlike in a most unhelpful manner) but nothing like 8% of football crowds are non-white. The comments contribute an unusual amount, especially for this particular subject.

If I discovered one thing from the years since 9/11, it’s this: although the British middle class, by and large, profess a hatred of racism, of sexism, of homophobia, of ageism now, that does not in any way stem from a dislike of discrimination per se. Discrimination is enjoyed as much as it always was – it’s just flown to a safe place, like Frodo at the end of Lord of the Rings, and survives and thrives in broad fertile land beyond the reach of race, gender and sex. And age. Whatever can’t be pinned to one of those donkeys is still grist for the mill.
I’m old enough to remember white racism before it went out of fashion. Living in Bedford, the most ethnically mixed small town in England, it was hard to miss the constant muttering about eyeties, Jews (for all that there weren’t any locally) blacks and Greeks and Chinese (who were actually Malay in origin) and Pakis. I know what it sounds like – I recognise the note, and I hear it still these days in comfortable intellectual suburbia in chat about Americans and <>. Not the same note that gets employed to talk about the French, mind, although the French still come up in conversation.

So I have some sympathy, at least, for people who argue that the white working class are always held to blame for whatever discrimination is going on. Nevertheless, I live in a white working class town (always surveyed as stockbroker belt, but the scene on the ground is quite quite different) and the suspicion/paranoia about anyone who looks different, sounds different, is enough to feel between your fingers as you walk around.

As for football, I am always apprehensive before going to a game. In London, you kind of get to go without buying a ticket, as your trains and buses fill up with fans in blue and red. It doesn’t inspire enthusiasm. Here’s one experience of my own. There have been many, many others. My general impression has been that although the amount of out and out violent behaviour has declined somewhat, the assumption that a group of fans “owns” the carriage or the bus and have carte blanche survives. It’s a decade, now, since I followed a group of Spurs supporters through Euston Underground station, they destroying every light fitting as they went, leaving the tunnel behind them blacked-out in a rare, real-life experience of genuine stygian darkness. But only three weeks since I saw an elderly couple deliberately picked on by a group of (middle-aged) fans on Putney Station for no better reason than amusement.
And the racism is still there, although a note of irony is creeping in. I travelled home in the same carriage as a gang of Chelsea supporters a couple of months ago. It was one of those carriages that Southern have fitted tall, comfortable seat-backs to, giving you a little more privacy, and we were all ducking behind these as the gang emitted racist comment after racist comment. They got off at Selhurst, and as everyone else sat up and heads began peeking out once more, you could feel the surprise ripple around as we realised that the gang had been a multi-racial one, and it had all been bizarre but nevertheless friendly banter.

But as I say, I still feel apprehensive, and wonder how I would feel were I of a different skin colour. Worse, I expect – worse enough to give up and buy a subscription to Sky Sports.

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Petr Cech and John Thompson

Posted on 17 October 2006 by JamesHamilton

One reason often given for the decline in the murder rate in the United States is improved emergency care: people now survive injuries that twenty years ago would have killed them. The same may or may not be true of football. There are signs that the sheer physical demands made by the modern game are taking some players into dangerous territory; witness the tragic death of Marc Viven Foe.

Petr Cech’s compressed fracture of the skull made me wince in sympathy. I received the same injury in the same place in November of 1992. I was working on a projected biography of Byron at the time and was shortly due to meet John Murray, descendent of Byron’s original publisher. The meeting was cancelled: Murray was taken into hospital where he later died. The man who set up the meeting, Dr. Angus Macintyre, died in a road accident not long afterwards. And I wobbled up Shalcombe Street NW3 under an uneasy column of Byron memoir. Outside my door, I was flattened without warning by three youths – they held me down, demanding my wallet – I refused, they threatened to kick my head in – I refused again, and they carried their threat through.

My particular fracture took a month of repeated badgering of the Royal Free to be discovered. It’s an awkward injury, because it’s not immediately obvious what to do about it. In my case, there was a lot of loose particles of bone floating about close to my frontal lobes, and they decided on that basis not to operate “for now”. I didn’t go back after that, and I’m still here. I don’t go after those hard driven crosses with quite the old enthusiasm though.

Cech may well have been lucky. He may not be feeling that way now, but what happened to him is an almost perfect parallel of the accident in September 1931 that killed Celtic goalkeeper John Thompson. Like Cech, Thompson was the great keeper of his day, and at the time of his accident was almost the same age. There is, somewhere, a blurry newsprint image of the moment when Sam English’s knee makes contact with Thompson.

We are lucky enough to live in a world with specialist head injury units in its major cities. Perhaps had Thompson had those at his disposal, rather than a bouncing journey through depressed industrial Glasgow to a despairing general hospital, he might have lived to knock out his pipe in disgust as, long retired, he watched Bobby Robson put the first of nine past his successor. We’ll never know.

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