Archive | October, 2008

MTMG Victorian Sports Personality of the Year 2008

Posted on 29 October 2008 by JamesHamilton

What with Christmas decorations shouldering their way back into our malls and high streets, it’s obviously time once more to hand out the most prestigious award in Victorian sport today: The More Than Mind Games Victorian Sports Personality of the Year.

The award goes to that sports person, active between the years 1837 and 1901, who has, in the opinion of the judges, done the most to promote their sport, shown the greatest achievement within it, made the sacrifices, taken the risks and entertained the general public.

Competition for the 2008 award has been even more intense than in previous years.  Our shortlist contained great names: Fred Archer from the world of racing; Tom Morris Junior from the world of golf; the great boxer William Thompson; others of the same calibre. Our winner can be sure of the scale of his achievement and the worthiness of his prize.

The winner of the More Than Mind Games Victorian Sports Personality of the Year 2008 is H.J. Barron.  I have asked the Bicycling and Athletic Journal November 4 1880 to provide us with his eulogy.

FOREMOST amongst Metropolitan Swimming Clubs stands the “Otter,” whose headquarters are at the Marylebone Baths, Edgware Road. Our portrait this week is that of one of its most prominent members – Mr. H.J. Barron, who was born in London on March 31st, 1857. Although able to swim at the early age of seven years, and facile princeps amongst his school chums at Charterhouse, he did not make his debut in public until the year 1874, when as a member of the Otter Club, he won a Novice Race on May 22nd. This success he followed up by gaining the contest for the Ladies’ Challenge Cup, on the occasion of its inauguration on July 3rd. During the following year, Mr. Barron was engaged in study, and, therefore, had but little time to devote to his favourite pastime. However, he placed to his credit the Open Six Lengths Amateur Handicap at Professor C. Whyte’s entertainment at the Paddington Baths, on Oct. 18. On this occasion he was in receipt of a 20 sec. start from the scratch man T. Robinson. He won the third prize for Egg Diving at the Surrey Entertainment, and first at the opening gala of his own club. In 1876, on May 25, at David M’Garrick’s Benefit he carried off the Egg Diving (12 eggs thrown in, 2 dives allowed); first dive, 9; second dive, 10; total, 19; and the following day, May 26, he met Mr. Charles O’Malley on level terms in a 150 Yards Otter Handicap. Barron got the best of the dive, and defeated, perhaps, some of the best all-round men of the day by a yard. On Sept. 9 he competed in the Amateur Championship at the Welsh Harp, but was outclassed. He met Mr. Charles O’Malley once again on level terms, on Sept. 13, at the Surrey Entertainment, in a 500 Yards Scratch Race, when O’Malley turned the tables on his former conqueror, and won in excellent time of 7 min. 36 sec. , beating Mr. Horace Davenport, ex-Amateur Champion, by a yard. (The last-named, however, had previously competed in another race.) On Oct 13th, at the Otter Entertainment, Mr. Barron again won the Egg Diving competition, bringing up eighteen eggs in two dives. A severe illness during the spring of 1877 incapacitated Mr. Barron from engaging in many races, though he started for the Lords and Commons Prize contested in the Thames from Putney to Westminster; but he relinquished the undertaking after covering a trifle over five miles. At the Otter entertainment, on Oct 12 he was again successful in the Egg Diving, bringing up seventeen eggs in two dives; and his feats of ornamental swimming, comprising eating, drinking, and smoking underwater, together with the Monto Christo Sack Feat, @c., fairly “brought down the house.” On May 31, 1878, Mr Barron won the 98 yards Gold Badge of the Otter Club, in 1 min 14 1/2 sec; time allowed, 1 min 15 sec. On August 9, he gained the Captaincy for the Year of the Otter S.C.; distance, 1000 yards, in the Serpentine, after an exciting finish with Mr James Rope. On August 26, he won the Amateur Swimming Race at Shanklin (Isle of Wight) Regatta; but at Ryde Royal Regatta sustained defeat, after a desperate race (distance 600 yards) at the hands of M. White, of the Portsmouth S.C., who won by a few yards. On Sept 20, he competed for the 485 Yards Gold Badge of the Otter Club; time allowed being eight minutes; he won it in 7 min 48 sec. Mr Barron then turned his attention to the cinder-path, and carried off second honours in the race for the Mile Challenge Cup, at the United Hospital Sports at Lillie Bridge. He next engaged in a long walk from London to Portsmouth, starting at 10 p.m., Aug. 9, and reaching Portsmouth at 9 p.m., Saturday, 10th; the distance traversed being 72 miles, and the roads in a bad state, owing to rain. In June 1879, he won both the Short and Long Distance Races at the Edinburgh University Swimming Meeting, voluntarily conceding his fellow students 20 sec. start in the 165 yards. At the Whitehall S.C. Entertainment, held at the Floating Baths, on July 31, 1879, he won the swimming under water with 68 yards 6 in.; and was defeated in the Otter Captaincy Race by Mr. Charles O’Malley, and again at Ryde Royal Regatta by Mr. Geo. D. M. White; the distances in each case being too far for a quick stroke. He also competed successfully at Sandown and Ventnor Regattas, Isle of Wight. At the Otter entertainment, Oct. 7 (Marylebone), he swam a splendid race in the Open 98 Yards Scratch contest with Mr. Geo. Ellis, defeating him by a yard. At the Cadogan S.C. Meeting at Chelsea Baths, he proved best man in another “swim under water,” with 67 yards 18 in. The Swimming Association being in a weak and critical condition, the Otter SC. joined it in the early part of the season, with a view to renovating it and making it the strong and representative body it should be. Their efforts have proved very successful. Of their delegates, Mr. H. Davenport was unanimously elected to the office of president, and Mr Barron as hon. sec. On July 27, Mr Barron again Mr. George Ellis in the Otter 98 Yards Scratch Race, and getting a bad start was defeated by “the touch.” On August 2 he won the Swimming Race at the Bath Amateur Regatta, and five days later swam in the Floating Baths Company’s Long Distance Thames Race, from Putney to Charing Cross, distance, 5 3/4 miles; he was, however, compelled to retire at the Albert Bridge, Battersea Park, owing to an attack of cramp. On August 28 at the Swimming Races of the Bangor (County Down), Ireland, S.C., Mr. Barron defeated Mr. W.R.C. Richardson, of Portrush, in the 440 Yards Race, and also secured the 100 Yards Race, swimming on the back only; and at Portrush (County Antrim), on Aug. 3, he won the 100 Yards Open Scratch Race, but was beaten after a grand race by W.R.C. Richardson in the 880 Yards Handicap, both starting from scratch. Unquestionably the gentleman whose prowess has been so lightly touched upon is in the first flight as a “sprint” swimmer, but staying is not his forte. As an exponent of some of the most difficult feats in ornamental natation, Mr. Barron has few, if any equals. Both “by land and water” he has striven hard to encourage and give a healthy tone to his favourite pastime, and recently lectured in its favour before the boys at Fettes College, Edinburgh. Not by any means has Mr. Barron permitted his infatuation for the art to interfere with the duties of his profession, in which he has taken high honours both at his hospital and Edinburgh University. He is not only an exceedingly popular “Otter,” but a universal favourite in the swimming world.

The Sunny South. – A gentleman writes to us as follows from Braunton, Devonshire: “I see snow has fallen heavily of late, but Braunton has escaped the visitation. Neither was there any snow here last winter. Only yesterday (Oct. 30) swallows were flitting merrily to and fro.”

(I don’t know what that last bit is about).

All kidding aside… there are a number of points of interest here.

Whig history, first of all: a modern reading about Barron sees a sport in its disorganised infancy. We look out for the features modern swimming shares with the Victorian past time, and wonder-slash-smile at the incongruities. Smoking underwater? Egg diving? Natation, forsooth?

This is how most modern sports history is written: what matters about Victorian sport is how it contributed to the modern picture, and the “winners”, if you like, are those that contributed to those pioneering/enduring features.

But this is history-by-verdicts: the kind of history politicians fancy themselves to be tilting for. Proper academic history has laughed this kind of thing out of court since Herbert Butterfield’s day. Most sport history, even at the supposed academic level, is yet to bring itself to the task of explaining Victorian sport on its own terms. (N.B. I’m well aware of the philosophical difficulties involved in describing the past to the present in terms of ideology and mores, but just because those difficulties exist doesn’t mean that the field has to be abandoned to the waggling moustache of Hunter Davies).

One is struck by the willingness Barron showed to take actual risks – all that underwater stuff. And then there’s swimming the Thames. This is, remember, the Victorian Thames, only 20 years after the Great Stink. Of course, Bazelgette’s sewers would have made life for the 1870s swimmer sweeter than for his earlier counterpart, but embankment of the Thames intensified the current and accelerated the water flow: Barron’s two Thames races were genuinely dangerous affairs. London’s is not a river to be taken lightly.

The “Floating Baths” were quite literally that, by the way. It was a tank placed in the Thames and filled with filtered water. I’ll describe it, with my Whig Historian hat on, as a forerunner of today’s professional-level indoor pools.

Barron swam on for another year or two, then turned to refereeing, as it were. In the middle of the 1880s, the Swimming Association split over the subject of amateurism. The Otter Club were among those to resign their membership. At about the same time, Dr Hunter Barron completed his diploma and was admitted member of the Royal College of Surgeons; thereafter, his name is heard no more in the halls of the Natation King.

Not so Horace Davenport, he who would race twice on the same day, who, when finished with swimming, became a croquet hero of the sunny south..

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I should just mention…

Posted on 23 October 2008 by JamesHamilton

Until very recently, my brother-in-law ran a business that must have featured the world’s most charismatic workplace. It held Europe’s only indoor Mustang dynamometer – a rolling road for racing cars, essentially, which you could stand beside with your ear defenders strapped on tight watching whilst another warpainted drag racer clawed its way to 200mph.

But, as with my business on a different scale, the money didn’t come in as it might have done, and he sold up. And got a job. Well, the day comes when you have to face your adult responsibilities, forget childish dreams and buckle down…

You’ll have seen his new employer on last night’s late news bulletins.  This is his new job. And here is the backstory to it all.

My god, and some people dream of football management.

I’m retraining in accountancy.

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Manchester United 3 Celtic 0

Posted on 22 October 2008 by JamesHamilton

In Scotland, the feed from Manchester went to the Sportscene studio, and at full time the viewer was duly delivered to an operating theatre emptied of everything but two chairs. Sitting on these were our host, with his comic horror-film expression and Vietnam War eyes, and John Hartson. Hartson was about twice his size, which gave the ensemble the air of a New Yorker cartoon about shrinks and dogs.

Our host had seen enough before the game, and ninety minutes of action had only made things worse for him. He read the other results, including that astonishing Arsenal away win, as though, at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, he would remember them.

Walcott and co certainly will, but we hadn’t watched that game: we’d seen Celtic, and their incidental opponents from the Dirty Old Town. With every United goal, our host might feel, another paper mill closed, another factory chained its gates, another hundred bankers spilled onto Edinburgh pavements clutching pot plants and redundancy notices.

Which is to say that, as is also true of Scottish news broadcasting, negative hyperbole ruled. It wasn’t fair on Celtic.

For one thing, you really can’t judge the quality of Strachan’s side by this game, because a good third of the starting line-up, including the entire first-choice strike force, is on the treatment table. All you can judge is the depth of the squad, and, the finances of Scottish clubs being what they are, Celtic’s manager can be the best in the world without getting near to the positional coverage United now enjoy. Surely Samaras, or the poor Dutchman Ferguson referred to as “whatever you call him..” would have taken at least one or two of the Celtic chances.

On another day, too, both of Dimitar Berbatov’s goals would have been struck out by the touchline official. On an aesthetic level, though, you can understand why they weren’t: United’s attack is going through a phase of supernatural beauty reminiscent of Law, Charlton and Best, and even linesmen must find themselves just standing back to watch from time to time, professionalism be damned. And in both cases, the defending and keeping deserved some sort of comeuppance – Celtic are and should be better than that.

Celtic now need Villareal to slip up at Aalborg. They can probably rely on Manchester United to beat the Spaniards on their own turf, and if Celtic can pull off their revenge against the Reds in Paradise on Guy Fawkes’ Night, then they are left looking for that away win in Norway, which has to arrive sooner or later. All far from impossible, especially with better refereeing than they have enjoyed up until now.

But they’ll have to hope that something hobbles Rooney. He hasn’t looked so happy on a football pitch since 2004 – gone are the frustrated niggles at opponents, the furious outbursts at referees, the frenzied attempts to win games on his own. How long can his golden run last – long enough to get England to the World Cup? Or just until the end of the month, until the next injury, the next violent provocation?

And – really, chaps – do yourselves a favour and get out of that Norwich City strip. How about the 7-1 colours instead?

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Belarus 1 England 3

Posted on 17 October 2008 by JamesHamilton

No one’s a prophet in their own.. and, once again, England’s press have watched England in a manner reserved just for England. During the 2006 World Cup, I tried watching other teams play with that English press attitude, and found it an enlightening experience. Even in that extraordinary Argentina-Serbia game, the striped side put passes astray, failed to read each other’s movements, went for the hopeful long ball, showed inexcusable defensive lapses, played a dodgy keeper and generally behaved like a work in progress, not like that thing of legend, the complete team who put in the complete performance.

I don’t think that ever happens. Even Spain in the Europeans earlier this year, who brightened my life and probably yours, required managerial intervention, went through stretches of comedy and incompetence, showed indiscipline and mental fragility and an overdependence on Fabregas. The 1982 Brazilians had no defence. The French side of 1998 had no strikers – Henry was a shadow on the wing. There is always something to criticise, always some way to improve even the unimprovable. The greatest ever England side, the 46-48 Franklin-Matthews-Finney-Lawton group had, as their modern-day counterparts do, a dud “traditional” skipper. Every England skipper you can remember had great England games, except two: Billy Wright and John Terry.

When Fabio Capello was appointed, I felt that here at last was a More Than Mind Games manager, and after four competitive games, all won, with a goal difference of +13, using, for the most part, the same players that Capello’s predecessor had plumped for, I feel deeply complacent about England, and deeply comfortable. There is the sense that this is now being taken care of. One can take rest from ceaseless vigil, relax, do other things, read books and play records, spend long evenings in Hector’s talking about private libraries in the Scottish Enlightenment.

Although, not entirely. Because there was quite a lot of that feeling about Scotland under Walter Smith and Ally McCoist, a sense that the adults had arrived and everything would be all right now. Until Rangers came calling.. Scotland played well against Norway, better than they were given credit for, yet there is that old insecurity back again, that fragility and vulnerability.

The match against Italy at Hampden in the snow was the crucial one, where it all changed back. I heard the commentators saying, pre-match, that the Italians wouldn’t cope with the combination of cold, Scottish passion, and the crowd. They don’t like it up ’em! They don’t want it as much as we do! And “Flower of Scotland” was roared out by a bearded singer and we were told that the Italians looked apprehensive.

It was as though, having gotten so far through actual talent, effort, tactics and the roll of the ball, Scotland had lost faith in all that and hoped to be swept into the Euros on a tide of bullshit. The television pictures told the story: the Italians, lined up for the anthems, looked calm, almost amused. It was the Scots who looked cold, who were hopping from foot to foot or chewing furiously on mental gum.

The Italians scored in the first minute. And this half Scot, driving home with BBC Five Live lit up on the dashboard, couldn’t help but laugh. Instant Karma: a Michael Owen with the crisps moment.

Scotland found themselves again, later in the game. Just like they found themselves against Iceland and Norway: with the roll of the ball, that would have been six points, not four. There’s a team there, just as with England, and Burley keeps trying to bring it out. I think he’ll succeed: he’s done it before, with lesser players than those he has to call upon now.

Capello’s done it: this is probably as well as that group of English players are capable of playing. With the additional five percent that the English always seem to find against the best opposition (e.g. Trevor Sinclair’s career-defining performance against Argentina in 2002) this is once again a squad that everyone might fear. I think a big part of it is simply Capello’s own straightforward belief that he is a good manager and that his methods work. Steve McClaren was and is too curious, too willing to learn and find newer, better ways to have that confidence in what he is doing now.

In the psychotherapy world, the best performers were always the dull, incurious ones who’d learned one way and applied it with the subtlety of knocking in a hammer with a nail, not the ones who kept up with the literature. Those always had the fear – and the hope – of finding that new research would disprove their current thinking and remake it along new lines, in the process rendering their previous practice – what? wrong? invalid?  Unjustifiable?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about football in the 3 years of writing this blog, it’s that being right is only part of the picture, and that when it comes to management, being wrong in the right way can work better. Capello is an intellectual Italian who loves fine art and wine, but he seems to understand the truth behind those no-nonsense John Smiths ads too, no doubt without ever having seen them. Amongst the European candidates for South Africa 2010, only Spain also retain a 100% record. But they’ve only scored ten goals to England’s fourteen, and those in a group of, by comparison, consummate ease. And they still have a double-header against Turkey to get past. With Ukraine still in the offing, I don’t agree with Rooney that England are through with their hardest fixtures.

Past two of the three, though, and with flying colours. So I’m calm. And off to do something else.

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The Kris Boyd Question

Posted on 14 October 2008 by JamesHamilton

The interview over, I followed her out of the room, asking as I went, “Is everyone in Edinburgh English?” “Yes,” she replied, “But it’s different in Glasgow.” A Central Belt of two halves, then, and the Kris Boyd affair is another that splits neatly down the middle.

Boyd’s always known his own mind. When he joined Rangers from Kilmarnock, he gave up half of his signing-on fee to the benefit of the Killie’s youth scheme that had brought him to prominence. At Rangers, he came out for Barry Ferguson against Paul Le Guen. There’s passionate feeling there, and loyalty, and not a little courage.

Talent, too: he has always scored goals, and he’s the first Scottish player to be top scorer for two clubs in the same season.

With all that in mind, it doesn’t take much to imagine his feelings on being overlooked in favour of Chris Iwelumo. Iwelumo played well enough, in my view, to justify his place on the Scotland bench, but international football is made for the preternaturally confident, the feisty sorts, and I’d have liked to see Boyd start up front next to James McFadden.

Boyd must surely wonder if it’s worth his while sitting on the bench and pretending, against his better nature, to agree with George Burley that that’s where he should be. But here’s the other side of the coin: George Burley, and no one could have watched his press conference yesterday without feeling a surge of pride:

There is no part of me that can understand his decision to quit international football. When you’re picked for a squad, it’s an honour. As a player, I went to World Cups and didn’t play a game. So you’re disappointed, but it’s your country we’re talking about. (..) When you’re born and bred in the country and you turn your back on it, it’s impossible to understand. (..) Kris Boyd wasn’t showing me enough to convince me that he should be on the field. I know he will have his supporters and that I won’t be everyone’s favourite, but I’m the one whose job it is to make judgments and stand by them. I’ve earned this job and I will make the decisions. (..) Reputations in the past don’t count. It’s not what you did three months or six months ago that count, but what you’re doing now. If past reputations counted, Kenny Dalglish would still be playing for Scotland. (..) I’ve been to see Rangers in big matches, such as Celtic and Hibs this season, the Uefa Cup final in May, and I haven’t seen Kris Boyd. Walter Smith at Rangers is, in my opinion, one of the best managers in Britain and over the past year or so, Boyd hasn’t been a regular. That tells you there’s maybe something that’s not right. There are things he has to work on, he has to get his act together and establish himself with Rangers. (..) Of course, it’s a loss, in the sense that you want him to push on with his club and with his country. You want him coming along and saying, ‘I’m going to be the main man, I’m going to do enough to show I should be the first pick’. (..) I think Scottish fans want people to show the character you need to play for Scotland, no matter what. I think he’s shown a lack of respect for this country and for myself. As I’ve said, it’s not about me or Kris Boyd or any individual, it’s about the country as a whole and trying to make sure you don’t let people down. I’ve also heard people say that Kris Boyd had nothing to prove. Hey, we all have something to prove.

There is here a trace of the Rangers v Scotland problem, largely a myth born of sectarianism..

But Burley’s right. Selection for your country is about more than your career and it’s about more than just sport. It’s about the honour of being chosen as a representative and ambassador for everyone you share your nationhood with, wherever they are in the world. It’s about taking pride in who your countrymen are and giving justice to that pride in your conduct of yourself.

Because of my birth, I could play for either England or Scotland. It won’t happen, of course. Like everyone else, as I grow older I move from identifying with the players to identifying with the managers. In time, I’ll have to start identifying with the owners. And later, with the touchline ashes and the flowers tied to the gates of the grounds.

If it did happen, I’d find at least a hundred ways to make a complete fool of myself, but I’d definitely do it. The idea of not turning up wouldn’t occur to me. I imagine it’s the same for most people reading this.

So where does Boyd stand in relation to the other refuseniks? What about Paul Scholes and Jamie Carragher?

It would be stupid and heartless to accuse either Scholes or Carragher of letting anyone down. Do many people think that they have? Carragher’s situation is more or less identical to Boyd’s: he has no desire to be a bit-part international, waiting forever for Terry, or Ferdinand, or Cole or the rest to break legs. At the time of Carragher’s decision, England were in their post-Ericksson death spiral, which is only beginning to flatten out now. In that context, perhaps refusal to play is the opposite of betraying or insulting the country: it’s patriotism through dissent.

Scholes felt that his body wasn’t up to both club and international football. In this sense, it’s probably significant that both he and Carragher were 29 when they made their decisions. 29 is far from over the hill, these days, but both had unfinished club business. Carragher still does, as witness his telling Gerrard that winning the title with Liverpool would mean a thousand times more to him than winning it with Chelsea.

Kris Boyd is 25 years and two months old. Patriotism through dissent? I think so. But the man he’s dissenting with is a true patriot. Both Boyd and Burley are saying, in their own way, that Scotland matters, to a degree that England fans might envy and wish to see in their own players. But this is where such patriotism can sometimes lead – to the palpable weakening of the Scotland squad at a crucial part of the qualifying campaign.

But surely, the lesson here can’t be that when the going gets tough, the rich primadonnas get going? Can it?

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Scotland/Norway, England/Kazakhstan

Posted on 13 October 2008 by JamesHamilton

There was no way into Scotland v Norway: the Antiquary spilled guys out onto the street clutching radios, the Baillie was full to the doors and people craning for a glimpse of even one of their many screens. The Standard’s crowded front yard told a similar story, so we pushed on for the Cambridge and eavesdropped for news. I could, apparently, have scored that one with a zimmer frame, or was it with a ball and chain? But there wasn’t any anger or contempt on view. Watching England used to be like this, in the mid ’90s when I’d get to the Wellesley early with mates and grab a table, a table I’d later be warned about standing on…

In the Cambridge, they’d just finished with Charlie Nicholas’s “be realistic about this” interview, which was basically and justifiably positive about the way Scotland had performed. I felt that Norway had been unjustly played down by the Scottish press in the days before the game: there have been more Norwegians playing at the very top of the game in recent years than Scots, although that is beginning to change.

Game over in the Cambridge, although there didn’t seem to be any appetite for turning the TV off. Top Gear on Dave was considered for a few seconds, or Wales v Liechtenstein. Then someone went up to the bar and had a quiet word: a button was pressed, and suddenly it was all red and white on the screen: Wembley. A drunken, middle-aged shout of “Come on, Kazakhstan!” but one met by frowns and nervous shuffling on seats.

I saw the first half!

And, actually, having seen it, wasn’t too surprised by the eventual scoreline. It’s another of those cases where you appear to have seen a different game from the press. I felt that Kazakhstan rode their luck to a great degree in the first 45, not merely in not conceding, but in not collecting 4 or 5 yellow cards for some frankly childish and unsubtle foul play. Kick Rooney, kick Walcott, and go down at every opportunity seemed to be the tactic, and the referee was too weak to deal with it. Fortunately, Rooney was in no mood to be wound up, and Walcott doesn’t get wound up, and, luckily, it didn’t lead to injury, but I keep finding that word “luck” on my lips when it comes to Saturday’s visitors.

My principal disappointment was the performance of Matthew Upson, who had a terrible day, and must feel grateful to Ashley Cole for taking some of the negative attention away from him. England need a solid backup for John Terry, for the sake of the captain’s erratic form and his frequent injuries. Unfortunately, there isn’t one: central defence is England’s new balsa department.

But the midfield actually played with a degree of awareness and intelligence – I don’t remember a single Gerrard glory pass in the whole half, and Lampard was extremely unfortunate not to cap an impressive display with a goal. The passing still wasn’t up to the standards of a Spain or Italy, but it was much better than we have been used to seeing lately. The team are more willing to wait, more willing to loiter on the ball.

No Michael Owen, of course, who would have loved to be on the end of one of the passes Rooney and Walcott were sliding into the opposition area. But not no Michael Owen for ever: if Ray Clemence’s recent comments are a good reflection of Capello’s thinking, Capello wants Owen to raise his game to a whole new level, to regain real footballing ambition, to stop waiting for things to get better. It’s a harsh approach for a player who has never let England down, but the results could be very interesting six months from now. I wonder if Wigan might consider another bid for him in January?

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Manchester United by Jim White

Posted on 07 October 2008 by JamesHamilton

Jim White, according to his potted biography, went to Manchester Grammar School and then chose Bristol University. And here’s the consequence of that: a man in middle age still completely and utterly at home with being a complete fan, uncaring, if not unaware, of the dignity-stripping absurdity of the fan’s prostration and snowblindness. A bad choice of alma mater there. Oxbridge would have knocked all that nonsense out of him. It did it to me. At least, it took out what little was left after the ’85 rioting, the Bradford fire, and Heysel.

But because the disease is still in him, he could write “Manchester United: the biography.” And, for the overwhelming most part, it’s better for it. It’s no good writing about a football club as if it’s the Foreign Office or Pilkington Glass, with footnotes and equal treatment of all those suits.  I used to speculate on how football in this country could be improved by getting the psychology right, by teaching tactics better, by getting rid of the drinkers, by becoming less like the way we are in general. But who would pay to watch a game run in that fashion? Who would read about it?

Jim understands, in that fundamental way, that the chant is “You fat bastard.” It’s not, will never be, a sprinkle of applause with the odd “Excellent shot!” from onlookers in deckchairs, although you could write an excellent satire in which precisely that happens. And what the biography makes clear is that, for all the money and commerce, for all the cynicism and hypocrisy, the eventual victory of Alex Ferguson over his foes, which makes up the extended coda to this book, is also the victory of the best parts of the traditional game.

He gets his bibliography out of the way in an introduction which is also the acknowledgements and a who’s who of United fandom since the sixties. And then gets stuck into the football. I was once owned a history of Irish music in which each chapter covered about two hundred years. But the final, and longest, chapter was called, simply, Van Morrison.. Ferguson does even better, turning up just before halfway. He’s done in depth, rather more than Busby, which is perhaps fair as the Busby period has other heroes, to say nothing of a villain or two.

But there’s a price to pay for giving Govan the elbow room. The beginnings are covered well enough, perhaps better than other histories of United have managed. But it’s still done with that patronising honkey-tonk Edwardian joanna’s giggling presence in the background, and in the foreground, the jerking, distorting comedy of hand-cranked film. The first thirty years of proper football are still written up as though they aren’t anything in their own right, as though they only matter for what came later on. Most purchasers of White’s book will take exactly that attitude, so from a purely commercial standpoint, Jim will have had no choice but to deal with things this way. And it does make it readable. But there was real drama, risk, danger and excitement in those years, and is there no way to bring it across?

The other loss comes at the very end. The story of Manchester United since, say, the Treble, is a formless mess. It’s still a mess even after a writer of Jim White’s talent has done his best with it. The Murdoch and Glazer affairs are purely depressing, the kind of thing that would have you changing channels if this were television. And it has usually been television, hasn’t it, in the last ten years, and what a strange place it’s gone to, leaving BBC Five Live as the last broadcasting outlet that trusts football to tell its own stories and to entertain purely on its own merits. Manchester United too has gone somewhere I wouldn’t care to go. It’s gone to Alderley Edge..

But between the beginnings and the eventual filling of the club bath with asses’ milk and asses’ money is a story told with all of the tangible warmth and humour readers of Jim White’s earlier books and excellent journalism has come to expect. He’s the kind of writer who knows not to disparage an anecdote, and as he’s spoken to just about every survivor of the whole extraordinary ride, there are some good ones.  I’d tell you a few, but I just don’t have the space. Well, there is the one about the Edwardian referee who got too cold to blow his whistle, and asked the United captain of the day to do it for him, but this is a family blog. Go read the book.

And though it’s not an academic biography, it’s not hagiography either.   Busby, his lieutenants and teams live in Jim’s pages: they are not “legends” or for that matter figures from myth. In particular, if you want the young Busby, rather than the eternal grandfather of the ’80s and ’90s, you’ll find him here. The most interesting period of United history, 1971-8, feels like I remember it, and I’d have liked even more than the generous number of Tommy Doc and Gordon Hill stories we’re given.

At the back, rather than notes, are a series of United lists. Interesting ones – did you know, for instance, that Duncan Edwards, on his debut, was only the fifth youngest person to play for United? And there’s a chart of United’s best ever seasons, expressed as two points for a win and also as a percentage of available points won. It says a lot for the changing competitiveness of the top division down the years that eight of the best ten seasons are Ferguson ones. Nutrition and wealth matter: most of the oldest and tallest players for United are from recent times: the tenth oldest is still there, an automatic pick.

Every time I’ve come across this book in the shops, it’s been flanked by at least three other United histories, and all of the volumes have been the same uniform red. This is the best one – the one to buy – although I’d hang onto your copies of Geoffrey Green as well.

But it’s not for Chelsea fans. I’m not the only one with a penchant for digs at John Terry.

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St Mirren 1 Rangers 0

Posted on 06 October 2008 by JamesHamilton

It was one of the most exciting endings I’ve seen to a game: brave, desperate defending from the Saints, against ten-man Rangers attacks that seemed certain, certain, time after time, to nail an equalizer that astonishingly never came.

1-0 it remained, however, and then the big screen next to my table in the Standard switched to Everton v Newcastle. At 2-0 to Everton, some cockney bloke rolled in and started making whoops and monkey punches, dominating the space, forcing the hitherto quiet couples and groups to dip their heads. I’d left by the time Toon got their equalizer, but I dare say some quiet satisfaction reigned..

1-0, then, and Rangers’ last visit to Love Street. The papers have described it as “decrepit” this weekend. It didn’t look that way to me, but nevertheless, the place that’s been the Paisley club’s home for the best of 110 years is to be bulldozed for Tesco in a couple of months’ time. Many of the old grounds have gone without their significance as local architecture being recognised, so I hope someone’s taking a camera around carefully before demolition starts.

It’s always sad when an old ground goes, but this time there’s a great deal to be said for it. I’ve been impressed, since getting here, with the way Scottish football clubs are being run with reference both to their financial future and the future of Scottish football tout court. St Mirren is a good example.

The sale of the old ground will enable St Mirren to move to an entirely new 8,000 seat stadium on the edge of the town, with all their debts cleared. Getting to this point has been a difficult job, with certain banks playing a less than supportive role. But now that the project is nearly realised, it’s possible to step back and admire. The new site is brilliantly chosen, over the road from Paisley St James rail station, and within a hairsbreadth of junction 29 of the M8. It’ll be something of a symbol for the town, straight away, and the improved conditions can only help the club’s performances on the pitch.

There’s another good portent too. The team that beat Rangers came from a squad that is overwhelmingly made up of Scottish players. These players are getting Premier Division experience against sides such as Rangers, who, don’t forget, reached a European final only last season, and Celtic, who have made the last 16 of the European Cup with their current squad. To say nothing, for now, of the Edinburgh clubs.

This is why Scottish football is improving so quickly. There’s some innovative training going on here for kids, too, which I’ll cover in a later post.

It was a good victory on Sunday. But it won’t be the last.

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Fifteen Minutes in Alloa

Posted on 02 October 2008 by JamesHamilton

I was here, briefly, in today’s early sunshine.

Not for any footballing reasons: I’d ebayed a bike, which refused to fit into the back of my car until I let its tyres down. Recreation Park was just over the road. A friendly face called down from a window. I couldn’t hear; asked him again. “Take the front wheel off!”

“No, no. I’ll just give it another push”. (Embarrassed now, and cobwebby from the tailgate handle).

I like Alloa.

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John Thomson and the History of Football

Posted on 01 October 2008 by JamesHamilton

I hadn’t known that it had been filmed: the shockingly violent moment when Sam English’s knee caught Celtic goalkeeper John Thomson’s head in a 1931 Old Firm derby. But there the whole terrible incident was, played out in front of a vast Ibrox crowd, and replayed now in commemoration of Thomson’s entry into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame. It’s a fast, quick, clever Rangers attack – English and Thomson go for the same brilliant through ball – and you can feel the impact in your gut. Thomson is left lying still on the ground.

I hadn’t seen the film before, but I was familiar with that press photo of the accident. It was in an hundred of those lavish 1970s histories of football. The picture’s grainy to the point where Sam English is scarcely recognisable as a man, yet you can tell straightaway that something is badly wrong from the acute angle of Thomson’s head. Thomson was rushed to the Victoria Hospital with a depressed fracture of the skull. A depressed fracture of the skull: hat’s my injury, “picked up”, as they say in the game, during a mugging in 1992. But I was very lucky. I was able to “run it off.” Poor John Thomson died that evening. Perhaps he could have been saved nowadays, but we’ll never know.

Of course, Thomson’s commemoration does everything to justify the creation of “Halls of Fame” – he was already one of the great keepers when his life was cut so short. And that’s what they exist for, isn’t it? to keep alive the memory of players who might otherwise be forgotten as the people who watched them play themselves come to the end of their lives.

As I say, I was familiar only with that press photograph, but it was one that had shaken me thoroughly at the young age at which I came across it. I was what, eight, ten? taking a lunch break high up in the little library of Parkwood Middle School in Bedford. Thirty years ago, before Thatcher, but I can still see it clearly without effort, where it sat on the page.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t get the idea of death. When I was a toddler, my grandmother’s sisters were dying one by one of old age and related complaints, and there are a whole string of them who lived long lives in the twentieth century yet whom I’ve just one memory of, the same one each time, of an old, old lady making a great fuss of my baby blonde hair, shortly before I am told that they’ve died.

What I didn’t really understand, and still struggle with now, is the nineteenth-century-and-earlier idea that death can come out of a clear blue sky at any age; that there are terrible things that can happen to anyone, and that they are real and take time. No fade-outs: no changes of scene while some kindly anaesthesia helps the doomed man over the line. A depressed fracture of the skull bloody hurts, let me tell you, but of course there’s much worse out there.

John Thomson’s accident told me that much. It can be you, it can be bad, you aren’t excused because you’re twenty and there’s no warning and you don’t get to say goodbye. “Lunar distances travelled beyond love” was Heaney’s line in another context, perhaps the loneliest and most heartbreaking aspect of this kind of death where there is no time to find some last familiar affection.

Of course, by 1931, this kind of event was becoming unusual. In the last years of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, the top echelons of the game saw something of the sort most years. Archie Hunter, Aston Villa, 1890 (heart attack suffered during a game). James Dunlop, St Mirren 1892 (tetanus from a cut sustained during a game). Joseph Powell, Arsenal 1896 (infection following a badly broken arm). Di Jones, Manchester City, 1902 (gashed knee turning septic). Thomas Blackstock, Manchester United 1907 (seizure after being knocked unconscious heading a ball). James Milne, Hibs 1909 (internal injuries sustained during a game). Frank Levick, Sheffield United 1908, Bob Benson, guesting for Arsenal in 1916… and this is just soccer. Rugby and gridiron were far worse.

There would be others after Thomson, and other goalkeepers, but the intervals were already widening and now such instances are scarce and owing more to undiagnosed illness on the part of players than anything that happens on the pitch.

Football is one of the most familiar and most consistent things in our lives. You can watch that 1931 Old Firm Derby, or the White Horse Final, or any of the many Mitchell and Kenyon films of Edwardian matches and understand what’s going on immediately. And this is a very useful and underestimated thing in terms of social history: football’s consistency and ever-present nature can be used as a measuring stick for change happening around it.

The impact of Edwardian footballing deaths on the other men on the pitch was every bit as bad as it would be today. There’s no sign of their being hardened to that kind of thing: just shock, grief, horror, and attempts to inspire change. Blackstock’s death played a part in the formation of the first players’ union. But the further the distance from each incident, the more the weight of industrial accidents, injuries and deaths begins to tell, the more they fade amidst a welter of deaths from infectious disease or what would now be minor infections. Only as trade unionism, liberalism and technological advance reduce the numbers of industrial accidents, only as improved hygiene, better medical techniques and (it would appear) factors still unknown extend lifespans and change expectations do sporting deaths become the ghastly irruptions into fun and leisure that they are today. It was 1936 before the laws of the game prohibited your raising your foot to a goalkeeper.

And look beyond the pitch into the stands. What you’d see there changed relatively little between 1905 and 1955. But the ’60s and ’70s grounds were uglier, more violent places, bringing into acute focus the increase in socially-unaccepted violence that was taking hold across society. (I’m referring to violence of a kind that wasn’t in-house to working and middle class people pre-1960, the kind the police were expected to keep out of). Football grounds now, especially at Premiership level, follow an aesthetic that demonstrates how British music/media and its aesthetic have permeated almost all levels of national life, taking the prevailing imperative and leeching people’s faith in other forms. Live Aid was a concert, not a match.. But that’s another argument for another day.

In 1930, John Thomson was injured playing against Airdrieonians. He damaged his collar bone, fractured a number of ribs, spat out a couple of teeth and, just for good measure, broke his jaw. The ball was there to be gone for, devil take the hindmost, he would have thought.

His mother, not for the first time, sought to persuade Thomson to retire from the game. She’d been troubled, for a long time, by premonitions of his death.

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