Archive | February, 2008

Sam Bertram in the Smog

Posted on 19 February 2008 by JamesHamilton

From here:

“Soon after the kick-off,” he wrote in his autobiography, “[fog] began to thicken rapidly at the far end, travelling past Vic Woodley in the Chelsea goal and rolling steadily towards me. The referee stopped the game, and then, as visibility became clearer, restarted it. We were on top at this time, and I saw fewer and fewer figures as we attacked steadily.” The game went unusually silent but Sam remained at his post, peering into the thickening fog from the edge of the penalty area. And he wondered why the play was not coming his way. “After a long time,” he wrote, “a figure loomed out of the curtain of fog in front of me. It was a policeman, and he gaped at me incredulously. “What on earth are you doing here?” he gasped. “The game was stopped a quarter of an hour ago. The field’s completely empty”.’

(Bertram retired in 1956, before the Football Association permitted floodlighting, a technology that had first been tested in Sheffield in 1878..)

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Yet More On Newcastle United

Posted on 19 February 2008 by JamesHamilton

Ever get the feeling that you’ve been cheated?

It seems relatively certain that Newcastle United’s latest, greatest fan, Mike Ashley, is intent upon selling the club just as soon as a bidder with £200m in their kick rolls along. DIC, Liverpool’s somewhat unScouse wooers and pursuers, have already said “no.”

It’s all just a little bit confusing at first. After all, how much more could Ashley put into things than he already has? Not only is there all the shirt-wearing nonsense, all that riding to games in white transit vans and sitting in the away end at the Stadium of Light. There’s the constant liaison with fanzines and supporters’ groups, pledging stability and the long-term view. And of course, the injection of Keegan and Dennis Wise. The investment in youth and reserves. How does a quick sale add up to all that?

Little did I know it then, but I think I saw the answer a couple of years ago, and I saw it in London, in Piccadilly Circus to be exact. I’d given myself the excuse to escape Sutton for “town” for a day, ostensibly to buy some running shoes. Lillywhites, the old warhorse of sports shops, seemed like my kind of place, and if it wasn’t, well, the Sainsbury Wing was but yards away. One of those lovely big old London shops that Richard Curtis might send Hugh Grant into, that Woody Allen assumes are typically British.

I was expecting something with the atmosphere of the changing rooms in “Chariots of Fire”: what I got was one of those fly by night shops that open for six weeks on Oxford Street before the big boys move in. Everything was being sold out of crates or plastic buckets. The prices, when there were any to be seen, had been applied directly to the packaging in marker pen or else with the kind of stickly label that never really comes off no matter how gentle you are. There were no clear departments – I recall a rangle of cheap plastic swimming goggles in amongst some dusty tennis rackets next to a nest of vinyl footballs.

This was Mike Ashley’s Lillywhites. On the outside, the building made out to the others that nothing had changed. Inside, it had been trashed by chavs.

It’s about what you can do with a brand. It’s not nice, but it seems to work: Ashley’s spent £120m+ on Newcastle, and it’s a drop in the ocean. One alleged tactic is that of the closing-down sale: reopening shortly afterwards at a similar nearby site under a slightly different name. Another is to offer e.g. Nike at just above cost price, relying on related sales of own brand produce (which will have a hefty mark-up) to bring in inflated profits. All quite legal, and, one imagines, quite exhausting to operate.

You can’t quite do that with a football club, which is a different kind of brand. What you can do is make it look more like itself: more like Toon. So, get in a Toon manager. Play being the kind of chairman that fans would pray for. Appear to set up a proper management structure. It’s like restoring a house for resale: get the cosmetics right. Patch up the structure so it can hold together long enough to convince a buyer.

If this is what’s happening in the minds of Mort and Ashley, then it would explain some of the more mysterious decisions. Dennis Wise, for example. Or not keeping Sam Allardyce, which surely any chairman who was really thinking long-term would have done. Certainly Keegan. I don’t like phrases like “real football man” but these were not “football decisions.”

How could they be? Ashley’s shown no interest in football whatsoever in his life up until now, unless it’s been to sell shirts. And he’s bought the Premiership club furthest in geographical and cultural terms from his own background and upbringing (he hails from the football hotbed of Burnham in Buckinghamshire, and still lives in the Home Counties: he’s rumoured not to get on too well with other denizens of the north-dominated cheap sports gear industry).

No, something else is going on, and all the Keegan stuff is a smokescreen. Nothing illegal, and, frankly, it hardly represents a descent from the good old Freddie Shepherd days. But something else nevertheless.


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Training vs Talent, and, Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?

Posted on 15 February 2008 by JamesHamilton

The experts say the same thing about a top sportsperson’s background. They’ll have started young. You don’t often come across someone at the top level who took up their sport later than age 12-14. They’ll have something called “natural talent.” This will make them stand out from their peers. They’ll work incredibly hard, or at least play their sport all of the time they can. In a lot of cases, the parents will have leaned hard on their child or on their children.

Those of us who didn’t start young, who don’t have huge talent, and who, up until now, couldn’t really be bothered to go outdoors, might well ask if this is the only way. The answer is, it’s the only way that’s really been tried.

Natural Talent vs Training

I’ve had one time in my life when I found myself up against a natural talent in something that I was attempting to do. On my first night at Oxford, I tried to break out onto the college roof. I didn’t know the place well enough to know where to try. But I had the company of a couple of girls in the attempt, one of whom became a lifelong friend.

I found out later that she wrote poetry. I’d grown up in the East Midlands, and Oxford was the first place I’d lived where such people allowed such things to be taken seriously, to be considered worthwhile and important. It was the last, too, as I’d discover later. But I could try to write in that atmosphere. I say try.

My friend had just won a university prize for a poem sequence. I loved it: she’d used form well, she’d written in a clear voice and not the cluttered diction of much modern poetry. She’d written something moving and genuinely funny. It impressed me and intimidated me.

I took twenty or so painful drafts to produce the kind of thing that would be handed back to me by my reader with pursed lips and a shake of the head. I’m stubborn, always have been, and kept on, assuming that I’d learn and that it would come in time.

The day came when I heard the rumour that my friend had won the National Poetry Competition before coming up to Oxford. I asked her about this. No, she hadn’t won. She’d come third or thereabouts. It had been her first real attempt at a poem, and she’d shown it to her English teacher. He’d seemed to think it was OK, and implied that she might as well enter it for the Competition.

I’d thought that she’d started much earlier than I had, and worked up to the point where she was as good as she was. Now I had to take on board that this wasn’t so. She hadn’t improved upon her first poems to get here: these were her first poems and the world was her oyster, not least because she’d always have a better metaphor than that on hand. That she’d freshly minted. If you see what I mean.

But what I shouldn’t have done was ask her about her drafts. How many did it take before she was happy, before she called time on a poem? One, with corrections: and then I knew that I would always be a scrabbler in the poetic undergrowth. The news hurt and humiliated me.

Natural talent. But she worked hard too. She would shut herself away for at least one entire day a week, just to write, and that would be on top of the 2-4 daily hours it would also receive from her. She felt that the restrictions on her social life were justified by the satisfaction she drew from it. This has all paid off. Her third book was published a few days ago.

She took the talent road, and I took the training road, and she was in Scotland afore me. By the spring of that year, I’d pushed out more and more dreck, and had more and more shaking heads and pursed lips..oh, those pursed lips. But then it happened: early one afternoon, which found me bunking off what I was meant to be doing in order to write, three perfect lines appeared in my head as though summoned. I wrote them down, then found that the rest of the poem flowed out of them with almost no effort at all. I made some slight corrections, then found myself a reader.

It’s the classic creativity clichee: absorption, concentration, meditation, creation, natch. It didn’t happen often after that, but it did happen from time to time. The results were always better than the poems I wrought through pure sweat. But I had to churn out the waste to have any chance of something better happening.

(Virginia Woolf said that you did your reading at 14-18. I was 22 when I read that, my reading hardly begun, and hated her for it. Always too old, always too late, always playing catch-up).

When I taught myself to draw and to paint in oils it was the same story. If I could create myself the perfect conditions, and cordon off for myself a lot of time, then my results wouldn’t embarrass me. I was happy with this. Then I met the man on the bus. And what a bus, pitching and rolling its way into the pit of South London, belching like a fat man in a dirty public bar and going into spasm whenever the driver changed gear. The man on the bus had propped a bit of scrap paper on the back of his redtop paper, and was drawing on it in biro.

I noticed the rhythm of his pen first. Then I saw the wonderful result. My god, it looked like silverpoint. A landscape, hatched in early renaissance style in two-point perspective. He drew quickly and effortlessly. It looked almost as if he was merely scratching off the foil to reveal the picture beneath.

My uncle is a watercolourist of huge talent. He’s apt to compare himself unfairly. Fifteen years ago, we toured the Royal Academy’s exhibition of British nineteenth century watercolourists. I was inspired by it. He came out enormously depressed, by a gulf he’d seen between them and himself, a gulf quite hidden from my eyes.

I believe that these are typical talent vs training experiences, and I think you can map them directly onto sport.

I am a sporting autodidact. This isn’t because my schools had no opportunity to provide training. Back in the days of Jim Callaghan, my state middle school provided soccer, rugby, hockey, cricket, athletics, tennis, basketball, gymnastics and swimming. But my teachers preferred the natural sportsmen. Either you “got it” with a sport straightaway, or you didn’t.

I learned my football from a cartoon strip on skills, allegedly and probably by Trevor Brooking. Brooking said practice against a wall with a tennis ball. I did. Brooking taught me how to balance, how to strike the ball with follow-through, how to trap the ball, how to head the ball and control the ball on my chest. He taught me everything, just by showing me how and allowing me to copy and to practice.

I did the same with darts, using a book by John Lowe, and became good enough to beat pub players by the time I was old enough to get into the pub.

I did the same with rugby. This time, the book was of 1930s vintage, and it had sat unread in the school library since the 1950s. But it had everything. How to hold and pass the ball accurately even at speed. How to tackle (that was fun the first few times, when no one was expecting me to stop them – I’d lift them slightly so they’d javelin painfully into the icy turf..) and how to sell a dummy. Within months, I’d gone from the bottom group to the 3rd XV reserves. Had my eyesight been better, I’d have gone further.

I learned, above all, that with the right advice, you can improve straightaway, and that practice takes you further still.

But how far? And what if you’re not starting young?

The neurological evidence is clear: you can learn most easily and have muscle memory most easily when you are young. But there is no evidence that you can’t do so later in life. None of us would pass driving tests if that were true. Nor would Larry Nelson have won the US Open – he didn’t pick up a golf club until he was 21, a full 19 years later than Tiger Woods.

The difference is just time. I spent hundreds of hours playing darts as a 12-14 year old: entire summer holidays. But I was academically able, and the time I had available for darts went down. Then I took up cycling; then I fell in love.

As an adult, I’d have at most 2-3 hours per day available outside my work commitments. That’s not enough to master anything. When I was a psychotherapist, I thought and read about the subject all the time. I spent my weekends at seminars, or writing about it, or training with mentors. I worked every hour I could get. My first practice was a three hour journey from my home. I spent the time studying.

How good would I have been at football if I’d devoted 12 hours per day on skills training as an adult? I don’t know, but I suspect fairly good. But football has no structure to deal with late arrivals. I’d have to choose between one Sunday league and another. I’d have come up against the fitness/age barrier: not everyone can be Gary Speed or Teddy Sheringham and keep up with the kids.

What about golf? Golf is a different story. By comparison with football, it’s an ageless sport. And it has handicapping.

Michael Oliff took a year out of his career aged 43 and devoted his time to golf. He trained for 12 hours a day for six months, under the best teachers he could find. He trained eight hours per day for the following six months. In the first six months, he took one day off per week.

He went from a hacker’s handicap of 26 at the start of the year, to scratch. It can be done.

That still doesn’t put him amongst the world’s top golfers, but it means that he is competitive at a very high level. The difference in average score between the top player and the 100th player is only 3 strokes across an entire year. That’s a psychological distance, measured in mental strength, not one of skill or ability.

But no one, to my knowledge, has taken a year, or five years, out of their adult life to begin with football and to discover how good they could become.

The best footballers are also the players who practice the most. Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, George Best and the goalkeepers Peter Shilton and Gordon Banks were/are renowned trainers. We know that not every naturally talented footballer – and you have to be one to get into the professional game because the training isn’t there in the schools to get you there any other way – is interested in football. For many, it’s just what they happen to be good at. Not every player “misses the buzz” when they retire. Not every player wants to train. Lee Trundle said as much when he was at Swansea City; Robin Friday at Reading might have agreed.

But there are limits to what you can achieve. During a league season, most players will spend a huge amount of time travelling and getting ready to travel. Most of them will have some kind of community work to do on top of that. Then there’s the danger of overtraining. There’s a delicate balance between match fitness/sharpness and fatigue. Extra skills practice and training is still additional physical work.

But in theory, at least, a one-footed player can become as two-footed as makes no difference. A player who can only pass to a team mate who is in three yards of space can learn to find one who is in only one. It’s a matter of finding the time, finding the opportunity within existing structures to do that.

In theory, someone might take up football at 35 and devote themselves to it full-time and become a match for, say, Conference South players. If they have natural talent, higher than that, taking fitness levels into account. “Masters” level, perhaps. It’s all about finding the time to try: and it’s the one thing the kind of adults who might be interested just don’t have.

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British Movietone Archive Now Free Online

Posted on 13 February 2008 by JamesHamilton

A sleepless night, not helped at all by the discovery that the entire British Movietone film archive is available to view free online.

British Movietone were/are a newsreel company, competitors to Pathe News whose archive is already online.

Naturally this means that the amount of historical football clips available on the net has pretty much doubled immediately – the pre-WW1 stuff is particularly good, and there is what amounts to near full coverage of the great 46-48 England team, who were poorly served before.

Start with England v Scotland 1930 – with sound, but no commentary.

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What Where the Worst Years in Football History?

Posted on 12 February 2008 by JamesHamilton

No trouble naming the great years: 1946 (England’s greatest ever national side), 1953 (Puskas and co.), 1962 (Garrincha and Pele), 1966, 1970 (Pele and co again, this time in glorious technicolor), 1972 (Netzer’s West Germany), 1974 (total football) and 1982 (Brazil once again), 2006 for the Argentines. You’ll have your own candidates in spades.

It’s harder to work out the “worst” years. Worst in what respect? No one could be interested in rehearshing a list of dull, uninspired seasons or the tedious likes of the ’90 and ’94 World Cups. Some guidelines are required, and I offer the following:

  • Years in which football culture changed for the worse in some tangible way
  • Years in which politics and war did football real and lasting damage
  • Air disasters
  • Individual tragedies
  • I’m going to leave out stadium disasters, as they turn into rather unpleasant numbers games when put into lists. In 1988 I was shown the Fire Brigade video of the Bradford City disaster, and what’s in it still invades my dreams from time to time.

    It’s all very grim.

    Here are my nominees:

    1. 1883: Blackburn Olympic become the first professional side to win a tournament, beating Old Etonians in the FA Cup Final. They were among the first teams to be specifically coached, by a former international called Jack Hunter who introduced them to the Scottish passing game and took them away for a rest break in Blackpool before the Final.

      The football codes in Great Britain bungled professionalism, in the end. Within thirty years of that Final, both rugby and football had ghettoized themselves along class lines, to their enduring detriment. As for Olympic, their advantage became their undoing. Local rivals Blackburn Rovers received better financial backing, and tempted the best Olympic players away. Their ground is now buried beneath a local school.

    2. 1925: the Offside Law changes, allowing only two defending players to come between the last attacker and the goal, instead of three. Right away, it took less thought and skill and guile to score. Within a year, George Camsell of Middlesbrough scored his 59 goals in a season, immediately followed by Dixie Dean’s 60. Both had enormous talent, both benefitted from a period of defensive chaos. Herbert Chapman, writing at the start of the 1930s, complained that the game had lost its quality and subtlety, that the new rule favoured physical strength and the hopeful long punt upfield. He and Charles Buchan pioneered the third back approach – a defensive measure seen as boring at the time. In the long term, the South Americans didn’t, and by 1950 the difference was beginning to tell.
    3. 1931: the death of John Thomson, Celtic goalkeeper. Before World War I, the deaths of players in action was far from uncommon, even in soccer as opposed to rugby (although neither on the scale of American Football, some of whose Edwardian tactics were intrinsically lethal). But Thomson was the greatest keeper in Scottish football, a capped international, a trophy winner and a star. Colliding with Sam English, a Rangers forward, Thomson fractured his skull and died later that afternoon. The event was captured in a thankfully blurred press photograph. Thomson’s death came as a shock and a body blow: his home town is still a place of pilgrimage for Celtic fans and Scottish football enthusiasts in general. Coming as it did at the time of Scotland’s greatest economic peril, it can only have deepened an already dark national mood.
    4. 1938-9: the Anschluss and the annexation of Czechoslovakia. Austria and Czechoslovakia were the true European powers in football before World War II. The events of the 1934 World Cup, in which a bent referee muscled Italy past the pair of them at the tournament’s climax, rankle still, and some Czechs regard themselves as the tournament’s true winners. Germany was not so football-orientated, and the first thing annexation did was to kill off a vibrant, growing football culture. It wouldn’t grow again in quite the same way. It was also the real end of the Mitropa Cup, a real European club tournament, best imagined as a mix of European and UEFA cups. And it led to personal tragedies. For a long time, the death in 1939 of Austria’s greatest footballer, the “Man of Paper” Matthias Sindelaar, was thought to have been accidental – carbon monoxide poisoning from a blocked stove. It’s now thought to have been suicide. Sindelaar had refused to play along with Nazification, continuing in fellowship with Jewish colleagues in the face of demands that they be ostracized. He couldn’t live under the Nazis: but in preWar Austria, suicide was illegal, and his friends wanted to spare him the posthumous ignominy.
    5. 1949: The Superga plane crash wipes out “Il Grande Torino”, the last flowering of Italian football’s first golden age. They still hold an astonishing array of Serie A records, and the team made up the overwhelming bulk of the Italian national team. The only scar on their record is an unfair one: a 4-0 home defeat to an England side whose like we have never seen again. It must have been one of the matches of the century. The accident crippled the Italian team in the World Cup of the following year, and it would be over a decade before Italian football found itself back at the cutting edge of the game.
    6. 1958: the Munich Air Disaster. Little more need be said.
    7. 1971: the creation of a single state championship in Brazil. Brazil was the last of the great footballing powers to institute a countrywide football league. The sheer size of Brazil, and the relatively undeveloped transport system, had ruled out such a development before, and not enough had changed to make it a success by 1971. Instead of raising standards, it triggered the foundation of many new clubs, spreading the available talent too thinly, damaging the finances of the likes of the famous Santos and bringing a partial end to the production line of outstanding talent that had been Brazilian football since the 1930s. Enough momentum remained to bring forth the 1982 Brazilian side, but nothing remotely comparable since.
    8. 1989: Surinam Airways Flight PY764 crash wipes out the “Colourful 11” from Surinam. The Colourful 11 were an exhibition side made up of Surinamese talent playing in the Dutch leagues. Amongst their number were names such as Ruud Gullit and Bryan Roy. On this occasion, prior commitments held the famous names back in Holland, and it was the second string who perished. Football can distort thinking to the extent that one might almost regard this outcome with relief.
    9. 1993: Gabon air crash wipes out the Zambian national side. We are still waiting for the African World Champions. This Zambia team were a very serious candidate to make an impression at the ’94 World Cup. Because of the crash (and some bent refereeing) they didn’t qualify. Zambia have yet to fully recover, in footballing terms. In human terms, the families of the dead, who lost major breadwinners, have yet to be properly compensated.
    10. Time to do something more cheerful…

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More on that word “Soccer”

Posted on 12 February 2008 by JamesHamilton

In pursuit of something quite different, I came across the following.

In New Zealand and Australia, “soccer” has been the most common usage since the early part of the twentieth century. In 2005, the game was relaunched in Australia as “football” and the nickname for the national side, the “Socceroos” was expected (by the relevant bureaucrats, of course) to fade away. Naturally, that hasn’t happened, and the nickname is once more appearing on official websites, merchandize and so on. In May 2007, the governing body of New Zealand football, “New Zealand Soccer”, was renamed “New Zealand Football.”

In the United States, however.. the “US Football Association” didn’t include the word “Soccer” in its title until 1945, and didn’t drop the “Football” until 1974. Early US associations overwhelmingly used “Football” e.g. the American League of Professional Football, which was founded in 1894. Some regional leagues did use “Soccer” before World War II.

(This came about as a result of musing over how Commonwealth countries picked up some of our sporting inventions – cricket, rugby, tennis – but it was south and central Europe and America that picked up football. There’s no single answer to why this should be, although it evidently is. Football was actually quite a late developer – recognisable rugby had a 10-20 year head start, and cricket much more: the sports picked up by Commonwealth countries seem to relate to what was popular in Britain at the time of first colonization. And, football seems to have favoured areas experiencing the growth of heavy industry and mining specifically).

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The Special K Revolution Thus Far

Posted on 09 February 2008 by JamesHamilton

Newcastle United are going to owe Premiership survival to one thing come May. Their good start under Sam Allardyce. Indeed, that might look all very pollyannaish come the end of the season, because not a few of the clubs beneath them are better run and are capable of overtaking Toon with a little luck.

As I write this – before most of today’s matches have finished – Newcastle have just been turned over by Aston Villa. They are 12th with 28 points. That’s a full seven points above the relegation zone, which means that Birmingham, for instance, need to overhaul Toon by that much by May in order for United to go down. But 10th place is eight points away, which tells where they really find themselves.

The sheer dominance of the top three this season means that, as with other recent seasons, the results of the bottom five or so clubs are generally so catastrophic as to make trends hard to discern. But it’s my impression that Reading have most of their difficult ties out of the way already, and can concentrate on their football, which has been pretty good even in defeat at times. Sunderland are either good or bad, but do seem capable of scoring more than one goal a game. No doubt they are inspired by the Special Keano.

Likewise, Birmingham have been working their way through the top three lately, and they have a manager who feels a good fit for them. Bolton are impossible to call, but the Gary Megson who is in charge now looks recharged against memories of the man who worked so hard and often so unavailingly at West Brom.

No, if Newcastle are to stay up, I think they can thank Sam, early season results, and Wigan Athletic.

But I fear for them next season. Nothing in all of the recent analysis of the “new team” that Mike Ashley has pulled together gives me any feeling that any one of them genuinely knows what to do to improve the current situation. To be fair, and starting from here, as they have, it might not have been rescuable from the beginning.

A lot is said, and a lot has been said here lately, especially in the comments, about the need to organize a team. Before Allardyce arrived at Newcastle, the Toon fear wasn’t relegation, but boring football. I fear that that might have been a “Charlton” moment. You’ll remember, a couple of years ago, all of that talk coming from the Valley about Curbs not being the man to take Charlton to the next level, to help them kick on for Europe…

Whatever Allardyce may or may not be able to do, I think, and most honest commentators would agree, that he can organize a side if anyone can.

Although Newcastle were excellent for long periods in his last game against a Stoke side that are probably rather better than either Derby or Fulham, Allardyce didn’t manage to organize Newcastle into a functioning side in the time he had to his own satisfaction. He said so, and commented that he didn’t want the set of players he had to have his future in their hands.

This was taken to mean that Allardyce was blaming his tools. But what if he was right – what if there simply weren’t the players at Newcastle to produce what Allardyce wanted, let alone what the fans wanted? The squad looks OK on paper, but so did West Ham’s in their last relegation year. What if too many have lost interest, or never had it at Newcastle, or just aren’t good enough? What if they just don’t mesh?

Granted that Allardyce had had a full summer’s trading and a complete pre-season to work with, and things didn’t turn around, but I note that Newcastle’s slump began at about the same stage that Aston Villa’s did in Martin O’Neill’s first season. It takes time, and O’Neill had the advantage that Villa were desperate where Newcastle have been demanding. It’s easy to forget which club has won a European Cup. But not so hard to guess which is more likely to win another.

And yet, and yet. I look at the players. Milner – Owen – N’Zogbia – Martins – Given – Smith – Emre – Viduka – Butt – Barton – Duff. I’d back myself to do well with players of that calibre. Things must be bad indeed, and if they are that bad, is there any way for anyone to turn things around without the help of a post-relegation clearout?

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The Ten Greatest Mistakes in British Football History

Posted on 09 February 2008 by JamesHamilton

Most of you will have read the contributions to Danny Finkelstein’s Ten Greatest Mistakes in British History question in The Times. I found most of them dubious – the Chartists not arming the London masses?

But it led me to think about what the top ten mistakes in British football history might be. In the week of the Munich commemorations, trying to take off through that bloody slush springs to mind. That’s half a club, half an “England” error. Every other club has its moments of regret, if not on the same tragic scale. What might have happened had Spurs been able to keep Gascoigne and Lineker? Or if Manchester City hadn’t sacked Joe Mercer when they did?

Anyone’s list of ten will betray something of their vision of the game as a whole. I want to see British football the best, the smartest, the most skilful in the world. I’d like to see a national programme sustained over twenty years to bring this about. It might not win us the World Cup – blind luck matters too much in football for that. But it might earn us what great achievement earned Brazil in 1982, Holland in 1974 and Argentina in 2006: the honour of being the best in the world in the eyes of the World. Whose ’82 highlight reel do you prefer?

So that’s what’s behind my ten. Here they are:

  1. The imposition at the start of the 20th century of retain-and-transfer and the maximum wage. These measures guaranteed that football would develop into a working class ghetto sport in the UK, owned and run by middle class businessmen. Not only did this prevent football from becoming a truly national game – it had much to do with the long-term ghettoization of rugby at the other end of society. The impact of this system on the life of the likes of Brian Clough and Wilf Mannion and Charlie Mitten is enough alone to render it a moral disgrace. But there were so many others.
  2. The 1925 change in the offside rule. Made for commercial reasons, the change led to the rapid adoption of the long-ball game, the emphasis on physique and the end of the classic Scottish passing game. Most observers at the time, including Herbert Chapman, noticed an immediate and lasting drop in standards, a retreat from what they saw as the more subtle, clever Edwardian game. Although this rule change applied worldwide, other countries, notably Brazil, drew different conclusions from it, and 1925 is one potential date for the loss of our leadership in the global game.
  3. Allowing the likes of Jimmy Hogan and Fred Pentland to go abroad. All of the most visionary coaches of the early twentieth century went overseas, barring Herbert Chapman and Jimmy Seed. Hogan in particular found his stress on skills coaching and thinking tactics rejected in England, and it wasn’t for nothing that he sat with the Hungarian contingent at Wembley in 1953. He was accused of being a traitor: the traitors were the English blockheads who rejected his methods in the ’10s and ’30s.
  4. Failing to enter the 1930 World Cup. We’d have been exposed to South American football twenty years earlier than actually happened. When we eventually played Brazil in 1950, the effect on the thinking of men like Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney was profound, and both reflect at length about it in their excellent autobiographies.
  5. Persisting with separate Football Associations for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s done for silly, jingoistic nationalistic reasons, and has actively damaged the game in Wales, let alone preventing a UK national side benefitting from UK clubs’ dominance of European club competitions 1965-85. “Auld Enemy”? If Liverpool could pull together Scots and English and Welsh and Irish, if Leeds and Manchester United could, and with such results, and later Rangers and Celtic, then just mourn what such silliness has lost.
  6. Failure to learn from 1953. The lesson there – that we were no longer world leaders in football – met with no concerted national response, and has not done so since. All we’ve had is occasional bleating about catching up, or the assertion that an organized side can beat a skilled one, as though a skilled side won’t be organized or won’t be capable of effective organization beyond the reach of journeymen. We should be talking about taking steps now that in twenty years will get us ahead of the world – or just admit that we’re too bone thick to work the long term.
  7. Failure to get to grips with fan violence earlier – it should have been nipped in the bud in the 1960s. Quite apart from that ’85 Everton side being denied a run at the European Cup, which is quite loss enough, it led to the effective exclusion of all but the all-out fan from large parts of some grounds. “Green Street” didn’t used to be part of “fan culture” (ugh) in the good old days that we’re always being told about by mockney fakers on Sky Sports, but it is now. And it led to the abolition of standing areas, of which more anon.
  8. The split between the Premiership and the Football League. We can all see where this is going. Including the new and monstrously tasteless idea of playing a round of matches abroad. It has also led to the decay of the FA Cup as a competition.
  9. The introduction of league formats in the European Cup. The tournament has lost a great deal of its former glamour, and the UEFA Cup has lost all of its. European nights benefit from scarcity; and “four teams qualifying from the Premiership” is just crass and tasteless.
  10. The abolition of all standing areas at English top level grounds. It’s killed the atmosphere. More has been lost than gained.

Other candidates throng. Giving Clough a run at England instead of Revie in ’74 was more than one step beyond the FA, whose shortlist that year was a shocking joke. Giving it to him in ’78 wouldn’t have been fair on him; he deserved better than to have to clean up after others, for all that he was willing. By ’82 it was too late for him, as we can now see, and his appointment then would have been cruelly unfair on Bobby Robson, another man who’d done remarkable things with a small club side. ’74 was the year, the last chance to sustain the momentum of ’66 and ’70 before it was gone for good. Ramsey had been unfortunate, and a confident hand to take over from him would have saved the situation. But who knew? Revie was the obvious candidate…

The treatment of Hoddle by England – as a player, obviously. And, still more so, of Waddle after he went to France and there played the best sustained football by an English midfielder in recent memory.

Gascoigne’s treatment by the various therapists he’s had over the years: the constant misdiagnosis, the grandstanding and advantage-taking by professional men both starstruck and condescending. British football’s bigoted attitude towards mental illness.

Selling Jaap Stam; selling Beckham. Dropping Beckham. Substituting Charlton. Picking Derek Kevan.

Dropping Tommy Lawton.

Trying to take off through slush.

Trying to take off through all that bloody slush.

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Why British Football Needs To Become More British To Succeed

Posted on 08 February 2008 by JamesHamilton

This man went to the same state school as David Beckham:


Twenty years earlier, and in the north, these men were also products of ordinary backgrounds:

..whereas the man you see here was an autodidact:

I was on my uppers during the last recession, and took comfort in the humble location of this man’s blue plaque:

And this man was born in working class Salford. The Tate owns 25 of his paintings now, and good ones can fetch more than half a million pounds at auction:

Men from a country that boasts 101 Nobel prizes – Germany, with approximately twice our population, muster only 76, France 49. Men from a country that published 206,000 books in 2005, more than the US (172,000), China (100,000) and Germany (71,515).

Britain is a country notorious for originality and eccentricity. We saved the modern world in ’39-’45, then built it, with the jet engine, the transistor, the first proper computer (or was that another Brit, Babbage’s?), and who knows what else..

More recently, another man who had to fight for his education exemplified just what I’m getting at:

Has there ever been a more beautiful car?

Hell, we even invented football.

Which is why we should be ashamed to read this, from Franco Baldini, after his first few days with the best footballers in the country:

We are trying to play more with the ball because the English culture is after two, three passes to hit a long ball. We have to try to play more. We need more technical skill. We have to practise, practise, practise. Also, many times we think about why some players are so important for their club – not just domestically but in European competition too – but they are less effective for England. What we have to work out is why that is. Maybe with their clubs, they play with less pressure than they play with for England. We know they want to play and perform but it’s a problem we want to address. This week has been very important for us so we can see things at first hand.

Our football, if it were truly British, would be original, clever, thinking (and I don’t mean intellectual. I left academia in ’91 because I wanted colleagues who could find their way out of a paper bag) and one step ahead. It would be subtle, ironic, but effective. Instead, it’s hackneyed, backward.

Superficially exciting, but as embarrassing in international company as Daphne Moon’s brother.

It’s not a class problem. English rugby is a middle class pursuit, and won a world cup during a brief moment of applied intelligence under Sir Clive Woodward, but it couldn’t get away from all that kind of stuff fast enough once he’d resigned.

Motor sport aside, it’s hard to think of a single major British sport that is ahead of its rivals. Everywhere else, the talk is of doing enough to catch up. There’s no ambition at all to do any overtaking.

Given how popular football is, why doesn’t it enjoy the services of the British eccentric and original (I distinguish these from the “great characters” the media creates from time to time)?

In football’s case, I think it’s all about fear. Fear of the obviously intelligent, fear of those people who can do what you can’t. British sport is a safe haven from the “clever”: a place where you can get into a crowd and laugh at what secretly frightens you, makes you feel inferior.

Even football journalists don’t want to look clever. Instead, so many of them talk in a wierd, obviously-fake laddish version of mockney, a language as far away from working class accents as Bertram Wooster’s but twice as ridiculous. That daft change in register when the news team hands over to the sports correspondent..

There’s Simon Clifford, of course. But whereas all British schools once had Acorn’s BBC Micro in their classrooms, how many British schools have taken his approach to the game on board? It’s even non-contact and non-competitive and there are infant versions, so what’s the problem?

The fact is, British football just isn’t very British. It’s not British to be importing expertise – the brain drain’s supposed to be going the other way. It’s not British to be found gormless and clumping, unless it’s in our attempts to brew lager.

So the British game is fast and exciting.. but Arsenal fans don’t miss playing “British”, and neither would you if your club could perform like that. And even that isn’t how British players and British teams should play.. we should be much better than that. It should be impossible for foreign players to use merit to get into the Premiership, and England and Scotland, at least, have it in them to recover the Edwardian lead over the rest of the world. Not through hubris, but by being like the rest of the country.

It doesn’t have to be la-di-da or fancy dan. Tony Harrison isn’t, but look at this! This is what British is like..


Baked the day she suddenly dropped dead
we chew it slowly that last apple pie.

Shocked into sleeplessness you’re scared of bed.
We never could talk much, and now don’t try.

You’re like book ends, the pair of you, she’d say,
Hog that grate, say nothing, sit, sleep, stare…

The ‘scholar’ me, you, worn out on poor pay,
only our silence made us seem a pair.

Not as good for staring in, blue gas,
too regular each bud, each yellow spike.

At night you need my company to pass
and she not here to tell us we’re alike!

You’re life’s all shattered into smithereens.

Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between ‘s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.


The stone’s too full. The wording must be terse.
There’s scarcely room to carve the FLORENCE on it–

Come on, it’s not as if we’re wanting verse.
It’s not as if we’re wanting a whole sonnet!

After tumblers of neat Johnny Walker
(I think that both of us we’re on our third)
you said you’d always been a clumsy talker
and couldn’t find another, shorter word
for ‘beloved’ or for ‘wife’ in the inscription,
but not too clumsy that you can’t still cut:

You’re supposed to be the bright boy at description
and you can’t tell them what the fuck to put!

I’ve got to find the right words on my own.

I’ve got the envelope that he’d been scrawling,
mis-spelt, mawkish, stylistically appalling
but I can’t squeeze more love into their stone.

If only we realized it, we could do to 4-4-2 what Harrison does to that simple ballad form. And then invent new forms, faster and more easily than anyone else. Our popular musicians have. Bowie came from Croydon; Morrisey from Hulme. Harrison himself was a Leeds boy, of course.

Given the state of Arsenal, the reBritishization of football will have to start in the capital. And I have a poster to rally the ranks (click to enlarge):


Tout changes a Wembley, next, tout changes a Hackney Marsh, tout changes at the public parks and school pitches and non-league grounds. You can keep your hat on, as they say. But we were being British when we invented this brilliant game, and invented all of the structures that have kept it thriving for so long. Let’s be British in how we play it, once again.

Put Clifford’s methods into primary schools, and in 15 years the world won’t be able to touch our young players. And football will be British again. Because heaven knows what country it resembles now.

AFTERWORD: You’re all going to hate this, aren’t you? But please tell me why – I’d be particularly interested in answers to the question of our national ambition regarding the game, why we don’t seek to be the best, just to keep the rest vaguely in sight, and why it is that our technical skills are still behind fifty-five years after 6-3.

Comments (9)

England 2 Switzerland 1

Posted on 07 February 2008 by JamesHamilton

I came in just at the end of the first half: Jenas had given England a lead. Jenas? And, later in the second half, Gareth Barry came off. Barry?

Match of the Day was refusing to tell johnny-come-latelies like myself who was playing, so it took some time to dawn on me that Capello had double-crossed us about his selection yet again. Or, we’d just failed to second-guess him. No Hargreaves, no Young, and Joe Cole appearing both on the wing and in “the hole”.

As for Barry, he had been playing and I’d been watching for a full half hour without my noticing that he was even on the pitch. But that’s good news: that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Under McClaren, the men who came out well from internationals always did so to a dismal backdrop of off-days and poor form and dulled inspiration from their colleagues. Crouch at first, later Gareth Barry or the “veterans at 28” Owen and Heskey. This time, the players in the spotlight were exactly who you would want them to be: the front men, Rooney, Bentley and Joe Cole. Later, Shaun Wright-Phillips.

They could take the applause because things were working remarkably well behind them. The Swiss goal was a half-chance brilliantly taken; that, and some last-minute nerves from England as the clock ran down, was all they were permitted to have. England’s defence won possession, and – instead of blasting the ball upfield – fed it to Gerrard, or Jenas, who’d take the ball upfield with a series of short passes interspersed with intelligent but simple movement, then hand over to Bentley or Cole. Then the fun would really begin.

England made plenty of chances in the second half. What was so refreshing about these chances is that they weren’t random occurrences, but regular occasions emerging from possession football and the sheer skill and intelligence of the front three. The ball skills, the thinking, the cooperation and the attitude were all there in spades and at times it was lovely to watch. The Swiss responded with violence, upending Bentley time after time when he threatened to rip them into pieces.

It wasn’t champagne football, merely very promising. England still stood off the opposition too much, especially later on, when they should have closed down. And SWP, although good within his lights, clearly doesn’t have Bentley’s passing range or vision.

But for the first time in a long while, there was no doubt whatsoever that England knew what they were doing. The best moments under McClaren came as a result of accident: enforced selections of Barry, of Heskey. This, by contrast, looked planned and practiced, and one reflects that it was planned and practiced in only 2-3 days. Both goals, Jenas’s tap-in and then SWP’s, topped off patient, excellent play.

What highlights and online clips will conceal is England’s new reluctance to resort to the long ball. Crouch came on and was employed as a striker whose ability demanded, and got, the pass along the floor. But for excellent keeping, Crouch and Bentley would have reprised the Croatia goal.

But if you missed the game, and rely on clips and best-ofs, watch the play, but then look at the expressions on the faces of the players. That scared gormlessness, that muted little-boy-lost look, is gone. They look awake, secure, resolute even.

Towards the end, England decided to pass the ball around for its own sake, Leeds-Southampton style. Each successful pass – I didn’t count how many – was greeted with huge cheers from a large, contented Wembley crowd.

It’s easy to run away with expectations when England put in one good performance. But this was not just a good performance. It was a clever one. Not a fluke, not the consequence of an Owen or a Rooney on a blue streak. Our international side has adopted Dan Dennett’s “intentional stance.”. My summary: England kept possession well. And that means game on.

This is going to be good.

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