Archive | September, 2008

George Best and Me

Posted on 30 September 2008 by JamesHamilton

I’d no idea at that stage that he was a footballer, only that my family were terribly excited at securing me a shirt with the “George Best” label on the collar. Usually, everything was hand-me-down, but this was new, and I wore it as often as I was allowed. Thinking back on it, I hear echoes of a song, “Georgie Best… Superstar..” in its unbowdlerised playground version.

Thanks to an ancient copy of “Shoot!” that made its way into our back yard somehow, I was aware of football, and knew that Pat Jennings – a reassuring, father-like figure in his green shirt and gloves on the cover – played it. I didn’t: I lived with my mother, my sister and two elderly female relatives, so I was about as likely to encounter gridiron as the beautiful game. Georgie Best was a more shadowy figure altogether.

Jim White’s new “biography” of Manchester United hints, apparently, at a different kind of shadow in Best’s life, reflecting, but not confirming, rumours that Best’s drinking was connected to a sexual ambiguity that he found it hard to cope with. I.e. Best was bisexual or homosexual, and lived in an age and milieu in which such people either didn’t exist or were considered to be rejects.

Whatever the truth of the matter, and I have to say that the evidence in Best’s case is somewhat slanted towards a greater likelihood of heterosexuality, the milieu hasn’t changed and shows no sign of doing so any time soon. British football’s ahead of the game in racism terms, and is beginning to recognise the women’s game properly (most of you will be able to name five or six top female footballers, and you probably won’t have been able to do so ten years ago). But homosexuality just hasn’t been raised as an issue yet. It would be hard to deal with, harder perhaps than finding a way of removing prejudice in the military. But the job isn’t even underway.

My expression – as seen above – retains the same defaults today – haughty, better-than-you, delicate. Add to that interests in the arts, literature, history, in a family devoted to computing and the sciences. In British culture, this kind of combination is often enough for the kind of people who, whilst not being out-and-out bigots, think that they can read sexual orientation from external signs such as these. And think it their business to do something about it. But at my school, it was the monosyllabic six-foot-wide sporting thug who came out.

In Best’s case, I wonder if it wasn’t the flair. What he could do: in what style. Think of the vocabulary that goes with it: fancy dan etc.. and add to that the way his representatives sought to maximise his income by giving his career a musical and pro-fashion aesthetic at a time when football still had its own and very distinct image. I wore a Georgie Best shirt, not a Ron Harris one.

And jealousy. George was a brave and tough player, for all his slight and elegant exterior. But it was George, and not the men who did for his knees, whom Michael Parkinson described as able to pull like no man he had ever seen. How comforting for some to attribute unreliable sexuality to a man with the “unreliable” traits of skill and spectacular genius.

George Best will never be allowed to rest in peace altogether. I haven’t let him rest, have I, writing this? It’s his misfortune that if rumours of this kind are to surface, they surface in amongst the culture of a world in which homosexuals are either in hiding or connected to fine institutions like this one.

Similar questions have been raised about Kingsley Amis, a man who shared two of Best’s most obvious traits. But they’ve been raised kindly, amongst people who are comfortable and unexcited by such things. And regarded as oversimplifications of a complicated man’s complicated life, when all of us are complicated and live complicated lives.

It can never be like that for Best, let alone for gay footballers brave enough to play in the big leagues and stick their head above the parapet. Imagine this kind of thing, only many, many times worse. In the face of it, I feel compelled, in 2008, on a blog read by intelligent and grown-up people, to indicate that I am heterosexual, as though to express sympathy for the dilemmas of men placed by fate in a minority role is to invite a kind of ignominy, as if such ignominy would have validity or force.

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Selling A Club To Its Prospective Players

Posted on 29 September 2008 by JamesHamilton

Another interesting side to the recent wall of foreign money hitting the Premiership – the other side of that wall, if you will – is that it’s called into question the idea that players are only motivated by the prospect of getting their share of the bricks. Dimitar Berbatov might look like the living embodiment of a red-top “Striker!” cartoon, but he turned down a better deal for himself to get to Manchester United.

Aaron Ramsey is another case in point. Of course, mindful of the West Ham squad list and the presence of Robinho, it would be daft to suggest that money doesn’t play a huge factor. But can you name more than two or three other players of the Brazilian’s calibre who have taken the shilling?  I can’t see far beyond Chelsea here: Michael Essien – who would have been at United but for Russian money; Sheva – who was praised by Mourinho this week; and Michael Ballack.

None of those three ever played like mercenaries for Chelsea – Shevchenko was quite clearly in a square hole in England, which I can quite understand. Essien and Ballack were instrumental in getting Chelsea so close to a clean sweep of trophies last season.

Back to Berbatov and Ramsey, both men who take themselves seriously as craftsmen and players long before income becomes a priority. Is it possible for clubs to attract this kind of outlook into their squad? What makes up a club’s “goodwill”?

Let’s rattle through some of the obvious points first.

  1. Opportunity – otherwise known as European football. Clearly. And the Champions League is the one they all want.
  2. History. Players want famous clubs on their CV. Spurs will always have more pull than Wigan, as we saw a season or two back when Wigan offered fabulous packages to a string of top players, all of whom refused. (Heskey accepted, and became a top player again. Anyone NOT very pleased with that outcome?)
  3. The person of the manager. Case in point: Roy Hodgson vs Lawrie Sanchez. A season ago, Andy Johnson would not have left Everton for Fulham with the intention of reviving his England career. At one stage, Hodgson was in the frame to become England manager, and we have spent the last ten months being reminded why. Likewise, Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn, pulling Shearer out of Alex Ferguson’s slipstream.

But mention of Shearer brings me onto the less tangible assets a club can have, and this is where the likes of Hull City come in.

Hull the place gets a bad rap. The worst-educated population, some of the worst housing, highest unemployment, low overall standard of living… but although the people of Hull do have real problems to deal with, the overall picture is wrong. It has a decent university, a busy port, some good regeneration projects, good museums, theatre and music, a history of famous poets and a blogger.  In re. the latter, throw in Hull’s adult education service, if he is any guide.

None of this is liable to pull in any footballers besides Graeme Le Saux or Lee Dixon, and Hull need younger legs than theirs. So take a look outside the city. Beverley, one of the most charming towns in the whole of England, is minutes away; York not much further, and with York, the National Parks. Prosperity, quiet, privacy and beauty – all attractive to many top players, especially non-English ones who value places where they are not recognised or rated.

Newcastle, surrounded by glorious countryside, is another case in point. Allegedly, Alan Shearer – and this is where he comes in – sells Toon to potential incomers on two points. One – the fans will love you. Two – you’ll be able to live somewhere out of doorstopping reach, with London money in a non-London economy. (Three – if you’re any good, your political clout within the club will be incredible. After Michael Owen’s shameful treatment by Liverpool and Madrid, can anyone blame him for going somewhere where he’s wanted? I certainly can’t).

So, if a club can’t offer history, or Europe, or a top manager (remember who was Toon manager when Owen arrived) offer lifestyle, offer privacy, offer what Chelsea and Manchester United and Tottenham and Liverpool cannot. At a time when Liverpool offer burglary, United offer Southport and Chelsea offer the goldfish bowl of Cobham(which has helicopters over it constantly these days as a result of the team’s presence), the Yorkshire Dales (rugby country!) and the Northumbrian countryside look all the better.

What do the other clubs have? Stoke are a short drive from the Peak District and more rugby country. QPR are forty minutes away from the Chiltern Hills, an area which is only now putting in proper roads.. Southampton has the New Forest and Winchester; Reading has the Cotswolds (just about); Cardiff has the whole of Central Wales.

No one could ever argue that a smaller club can use assets such as these to out-gun the traditional giants of the game – but for now, they aren’t competing with Spurs or Liverpool. It’s about that precious bottom half of the Premiership, which is open to new entrants, as Wigan and Portsmouth have demonstrated. The path there, as Metatone said here yesterday, is through selling the club to good but minor foreign players, or top-class last-payday types with a winning attitude. There aren’t enough Johnsons and Bullards to go around these days, if there ever were, given English football’s perennial drink problem. Small clubs need foreign players with enthusiasm and ambition.

So surely it pays a club to pay attention to what it has around it just as a local council or a recruiting business would – to pay attention to what blind luck, geography and nature has given it – and to use those things to compensate for the lack of funds and foreign fussball.

This is all tediously obvious, isn’t it?

Hull’s Geovanni is 28, by the way. Where has he been!?

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Arsenal 1 Hull City 2

Posted on 28 September 2008 by JamesHamilton

I caught this one, albeit at an extreme angle to the screen, in a Queens Arms rammed by Open Door weekend. There is a kind of football rudeness when you can see the TV and your interlocutor can’t: your eyes drift upwards all on their own, and your ears switch channels from your real conversation to the artificial one of the broadcast. It’s terrible manners, really.

The Queens Arms does seem to be the Londoner’s pub in these parts, and when Walcott opened Hull up like a can of beans early in the second half, the place erupted. It was harsh on Hull, who’d matched Arsenal up until then, playing with confidence and assurance.

So when Geovanni’s wonderful goal went in, my first thought was that another might shortly follow; and in my mind’s eye I saw how well West Brom have been performing, and how capably Stoke got through games against the top four without an implosion of morale. Just at the point when every commentator believes that the rich vs poor divide has condemned the promoted clubs to instant relegation, are these three going to be the clubs to show that divide up as just one more passing phase in the Premiership’s history?

Of course, I hope so; everyone hopes so. And perhaps the absurd money that is now coming into the game makes it more likely, not less. In the 1950s, Sunderland became known as the “Bank of England” club for the amount that they were prepared to spend on players. Much good it did them: I once possessed a paperback history of the Football League published in 1957 to mark the League’s 70th birthday which celebrated Sunderland for never having been relegated: guess what happened to them in the following season. Huge sums wielded by inexpert owners leaning on increasingly short-term managers in search of instant success creates a kind of opportunity for poorer clubs with more patience and a manager given time to organize, teach and train. Men like Phil Brown and Brian Horton, for instance.

What really stands between a Hull City and what you might call e.g. “Aston Villa status” is history: Villa, or Spurs, or any of the other clubs with glorious pasts, have always been able to use their clippings file as bait for talent. Being situated in large conurbations does no harm either.

But nothing stands in the way of them becoming a Southampton. I refer here to the Southampton sent on its way by Lawrie McMenemy in the ’70s and ’80s, who were an established Premiership club until they pressed the destruct button so meaninglessly a few years ago. Southampton had had to survive in the Premiership at the Dell for a number of years, courtesy of Matt Le Tissier and a squad who never gave up. Hull arrive with their modern stadium up and running.

If they keep their nerve, I think they can do it.

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Where Were You When You Heard About…

Posted on 22 September 2008 by JamesHamilton

Thanks to Gracchi for roping me in on this one. I’m a little late; sorry.

The Death of the Princess of Wales (curses on this wretched public computer keyboard): I was in the then-new Clapham Sainsburys shopping for breakfast. I pulled the Sunday Telegraph out from the plastic dispenser, read the headline (“Diana and Dodi Dead”), pushed it back in again, then pulled it out a second time to see if the headline had changed to something more sensible. It hadn’t, of course.

I was one of those people – most of whom will now deny it – who became caught up in it all. I was up there on the grassy knoll at the edge of Green Park when her coffin arrived on the evening before her funeral, amongst the candles and photographs and letters and eerie silence. I doubt this is the time or place to become involved in any longer discussion about that or things monarchical in general, so I’ll move on to..

Margaret Thatcher’s resignation. I was in St Swithun’s Quad, Magdalen College, when the now Dr Mark Godfrey of Glasgow University came running out from the corner staircase with what I felt to be rather mixed tidings. What followed was a sedate but well-attended tea-and-teacakes party, with a fair number of those there suspecting that out-and-out celebration was (1) quite possibly premature and (2) in poor taste.

9/11: I was at the enquiry desk of North Kensington Library when my colleague Jeremy Travers came up behind me to say that planes had hit both towers of the World Trade Centre. He didn’t tell me straightaway what he also knew, that they’d actually come down. Remember, that was very hard to imagine before it had actually taken place. The rest of the afternoon was taken up by trying to get the BBC News site to load, surrounded by a crowd of appalled customers and staff. It wouldn’t: only Ananova hadn’t fallen over. This was followed by desperate attempts to contact everyone I might have known who’d be in there.

My wife was at work at the OUP, herself and another US citizen. People say that the US began with world sympathy. Not from academics. Her treatment that afternoon was shameful (her colleague resigned in disgust shortly afterwards). Mary Beard was far from alone unfortunately. I saw my first overtly anti-USA march in Oxford a day or so later.

England vs West Germany, World Cup semi-final 1990. I watched this in my mother’s cottage in Sharnbrook. I felt England were EXTREMELY fortunate to be there – they’d been dreadful all tournament, and the victory against Belgium in particular was daylight robbery. But they pulled it together for the semi-final, and probably deserved to win that tremendous match overall.

President Kennedy’s assassination: I was in my GM Corvette driving fast down Highway 1 in Big Sur. Very early in the morning, and I’d been partying all night. Top down, radio bellowing over the wind; I’m not sure I caught the news properly first time, but it soon became inescapable. Memorable to me as one of those occasions when something causes you to sober up, instantly, brings you back to land from way way out and all in an instant. I rang my editor from a roadside telephone – woke him up – he shouted “No!” and then ordered me to report straight to the office.

Tag yourselves if you feel inclined!

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