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We’re all Foxes now — or are we?

12 May

If you’ve just come back from a holiday on Mars, I need to tell you that Leicester City football club have recently been crowned Champions of the Premier League. This has been such a shock that their  unpredicted triumph has spread from the Sports channels to the main news broadcasts. Their surprising success has leapt from the back page to the front.

It seems that Leicester’s trouncing of the bigger, richer, “elite” clubs has captured the public imagination. It’s a heart-warming David and Goliath story. A team of so-called journey-men, unknown foreign imports and loanees rejected by their parent clubs, has, against all the odds, come out on top. Everyone loves an underdog, especially when, totally unexpectedly, it becomes a dog.

Leicester City, known as the “Foxes”, is a football club that has not exactly been sated with success over the years. I think they might have won the League Cup ( the poor relation of the FA Cup) under the manager Martin O’Neill in the 1980’s or 90’s. They’ve won a few promotions from the lower leagues and, back in the early 1960’s, they got to the FA Cup Final at Wembley, but lost to the all-conquering Spurs side of that era. I remember watching it on our small, black and white telly. One of the Leicester defenders played much of the match with what turned out to be a broken leg, as substitutes weren’t allowed in those days. However, for most of their existence, the “Foxes” have had the usual frustrating mixture of: hope, disappointment and despair, peppered with occasional dashes of joy. In this respect, they are just like most of the other clubs in the Football League. Only the pampered fans of the wealthy elite — Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, now joined by the suddenly super-wealthy Chelsea and Manchester City — expect and demand constant success and  regular lifting of “silverware”. ( the football cliché for trophies.)

Usually in life, money can buy you most things. As John Lennon once sang: “What it can’t buy, I can’t use.” Cash is commonly regarded as the route to happiness, although in reality, this is far from guaranteed. Materialism has taken over from religion as the main driving-force in many peoples’ lives. This is particularly true in the world of Premiership football. Huge wads of TV money has come into the top league from Sky, BT, and others, in exchange for exclusive right to broadcast a whole raft of matches live. The poor old terrestrial channels, the BBC and ITV, have been squeezed out on to the margins, reduced to showing brief, edited highlights or the occasional cup match. Top footballers demand and get obscene amounts of money to perform in this immensely popular section of the entertainment industry. Their enormous salaries are an insult to almost every other working person in the country. Money rules it seems. Multi-billionaires, many of them foreign, have taken over ownership of Premier League clubs, often to the detriment of their genuine fans. They see it as a business opportunity and are intent on buying success at all costs. “Mercenary” players and coaches are brought in at vast expense to achieve that dominance as quickly as possible.

Arsene Wenger, the long-serving Arsenal manager, who by the way earns about £1 million per annum, spoke of the adverse effects of “financial-doping” back in 2005/6 when Chelsea, previously a moderately successful, middle-ranking First Division club, had suddenly been plunged into the big time when a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, purchased it as his plaything to go alongside his: mansions, big cars, private jet and luxury yacht. Previously, money had obviously been important, but clubs could also gain success through: good tactics, teamwork, youth development schemes, clever scouting and canny management. Brian Clough and Peter Taylor’s Derby County and Nottingham Forest in the 1970’s and 80’s are excellent examples of this. Bigger, richer clubs were temporarily put in the shade. Both Derby and Forest, lacking really big financial investment, have now become regular inhabitants of the lower leagues.  The norm has largely returned to: “the richer you are, the more successful you are.” In other words, the road to success is paved with dosh. Other clubs’ best players, coaches and managers can be poached( i.e. stolen), lured away by the prospect of bigger bucks. Thus some have argued that “financial doping”, stemming from vast TV money and mega-rich owners, has warped and ruined the traditional world of football.

Sport’s most vital ingredient is “fairness.” There should be a level playing- field. When this fairness is challenged by a gross financial disparity, then the main appeal of sport — a contest between equals, in which the best individual or team wins  — is destroyed. I wrote a piece a few years ago about why it was not necessarily a good thing that Manchester City  had won the Premier League title. Perennially the bridesmaids in their own city, in the shadow of their illustrious neighbours, United, City had won their first top title since the late 1960’s. What’s wrong with that? Most people greeted it as good news, breaking the boring Premiership hegemony of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. ( only Blackburn Rovers had done it previously and that’s mostly because they had a rich “sugar-daddy.) However, a couple of years before their triumph, City had been purchased by the Royal family of Abu Dhabi, an oil-rich Gulf state with limitless wealth. They proceeded to use their immense riches to take the short -cut to success. They quickly achieved this in 2012 and again in 2014. Money-bags Manchester City and Chelsea are now regarded as “elite” clubs such that their owners and supporters expect and demand constant trophies. Not surprisingly, their support has swelled immeasurably as millions of “fair-weather” fans have jumped on to their band-wagons. It’s all very depressing in my opinion.

This then, is the background to Leicester City’s astounding achievement in the season of 2015/16. Whereas Manchester City paid £55million for just one player, Kevin de Bruyne, Leicester’s entire team cost less than half of that at £25million. Even that figure would be like living in dreamland for the owners and supporters of the huge majority of lower league clubs, including my own home- town team: Chesterfield FC ( the Spireites) in league 1, the third tier of English football. Chesterfield had to sell their captain and best player, Sam Morsey, for only £750,000 to help pay off their debts. However, getting back to Leicester City, in the context of the super-wealthy Premier League, they have shown that  having the most money does not always automatically buy the most success. The normal axiom of “money rules” has been turned on its head — at least for one season.

The feel-good factor of the Foxes success has been further enhanced by the fact that they are managed by a genial, 64 year old  Italian, Claudio Ranieri, who, although respected and experienced, has never actually won a national title before. He has had some success but has never managed a team of champions. In fact, he was sacked from his last job as manager of Greece, when they lost, in humiliating circumstances to the lowly Faroe Islands.( although, to be fair, the Greek FA was in complete meltdown  at the time.) The journalists have loved his story. After being originally suspected of just wanting to add to his pension- pot in the twilight of his career, Ranieri is now hailed as a genius. As the unexpected victories rolled in so did the corny headlines — the “Wily Ranieri”, the “Cunning old fox” etc. The general public have lapped it up too. Ranieri has not employed the infamous, aggressive “hair-dryer treatment” of an Alex Ferguson, or the dark, confrontational style of a Jose Mourinho ,to gain his success. He has led Leicester with a quiet, genial charm and clever tactical nous. He has won the trust of his players and has motivated them to play out of their skins, week in and week out. He has created a very strong feeling of unity and camaraderie. Claudio has lit up press conferences with his quirky use of English and his genuine modesty. The improbable success of his very moderate ( on paper) team has given everyone fresh hope and has been like a “breath of fresh air.” ( Sorry- it’s difficult to avoid clichés when writing about football.)

At first, everyone expected Leicester to collapse at some point and fall away from the top. Surely the stress and strain would get them in the end? But it never did! It was the Tottenhams, the Arsenals and the two Manchester clubs who did the falling away. Chelsea, the previous champions imploded early on and Liverpool’s inconsistency led them to change managers. When the media sensed that Leicester, against all the odds, actually had a great chance of winning the title, the clichés started to roll in. Suddenly they were every football fan’s second team. It was “like a fairy tale.” Apparently, we were all “Foxes” now, according to the press. ( If it had been Everton or Stoke City winning, presumably we would all have been “Toffees” or “Potters.”) The sentimental slush just kept on coming. Even people who didn’t follow football or had nothing to do with the city, like my sister, started to avidly follow Leicester’s results and want them to win. It had become a human interest story, not merely a football tale.

I think the success of the Foxes is great. If you’ll allow me to be negative for a moment, it has been good to see the smiles wiped off the faces of the shareholders and fans of the mega-rich clubs who have tried to purchase success. However, as a life-long football fan, I don’t suddenly support Leicester or regard them as my second team. That, in my opinion, is blatant band-wagon jumping. I am pleased for the real, long-term Foxes’ fans, the ones who have supported them all their lives, through the numerous lows as well as the occasional highs. Real supporters follow their clubs through thick and thin. They don’t just turn up for the good times. Neither do they change their allegiance to the latest champion team. To me it’s ridiculous that most Manchester United fans don’t even live in England, never mind Manchester. It doesn’t make sense to me that football fans in Africa of Asia walk around in replica: Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester City shirts.

To me, football is a primarily geographical thing. It all depends where one’s roots are. I was born and raised in Chesterfield , Derbyshire, and so I have been a lifelong supporter of the “Spireites”, even though I now live in a different part of the country. (The Spireites are so called because Chesterfield’s church has a famously crooked spire.) If I had been born in Accrington or Hartlepool I would have been an Accrington Stanley or Hartlepool United fan. On the main stand in Hartlepool’s ground, Victoria Park, is the proud declaration: “Born a Pooly, Live a Pooly, Die a Pooly.” Hartlepool diehards have not suddenly switched their allegiance to Leicester or whoever happens to  win the Champions League. When Chesterfield score a dramatic equaliser or a last minute winner, we all sing, quite truthfully, “we’re Spireites ’till we die!” I know it sounds daft but that’s what being a serious football fan is like. Being a football supporter is both a joy and a curse. It’s simultaneously a passion and a disease! And it lasts a whole lifetime! I admire Arsenal for the attractiveness of much of their football under Wenger, but my first and last love will always be Chesterfield FC.

So no, I am not, and never will be one of the Foxes. No matter what the press claims, Leicester City are not my favourite second team. I am really pleased for them and believe their triumph is a very good tonic for the game. However, I, and most genuine football fans, will not be leaping on to the Leicester band-wagon and trying to bask in some reflected glory. We will all be supporting our own teams, even if , like Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers, Crewe Alexandria and York City, they have been relegated from their respective leagues. ( along with others), Misery, frustration and despair are as much a part of football as joy and elation. Football to me is not about fairy tales, fickleness or fair-weather supporting, it’s about: loyalty, identity and a sense of belonging. One’s team is one’s tribe or clan, and it would be traitorous to support another, even temporarily.

The Day I Met the Scunny Bunny.

23 Mar

At first it seemed an outrageous, if not plain silly, idea. A 66 year old man travelling for 3 hours by public transport to see a third tier football match in a rundown East Midlands steel town. For a while I held back from mentioning this crazy plan to my wife, for fear of being laughed out of the house. After all, I could save a lot of money and time by staying at home and watching some footy on the telly. And if I was desperate to see an old, crumbling iron and steel town — then there was one just down the road from us. However, that’s twice missing the point. It wasn’t any old match in any old industrial town I wanted to see, it was the one involving my home team — Chesterfield fc — otherwise known as the “Spireites.” I grew up in that town and spent my formative years going to see the Spireites play, first with my dad, then with my mates. More recently, I’ve watched them with my cousins, my late uncle and my nephew. Supporting Chesterfield runs in the family. You might say that this particular football team has now got into my blood. Chesterfield fc forms part of my DNA. So perhaps it wasn’t such a crazy idea afterall, wanting to go and see them play at  Scunthorpe fc, known as “The Iron”. It was the clash of “The Iron” and “The Spireites”, and reader, I was there!

  I like travelling on trains– when they run on time! I get to read my book, observe human life as my fellow passengers get on and off, and see the scenary constantly changing through the window. For me it’s far preferable to driving down endless miles of anonymous motorway, unable to take my eyes off the road, unable to move and getting increasingly cramped in my seat. It may be the “freedom of the road” but it is a very isolating experience, being trapped in one’s own little metal box, not able to speak to or interact with any of the people only a few feet away . In the end it becomes a case of counting the miles and just wanting the journey to be over and done with. Stopping at a service station fails to dispel the monotony as they are more or less all the same, with their franchised food and retail outlets, canned music in the toilets and glazed-eyed  motorists drinking bad coffee and wishing they were somewhere else. Give me a railway station anyday!

  My “exciting day” began in anti-climax though. I live in Saltburn, a tiny Victorian seaside resort which forms the terminus of  a branch line off the East Coast mainline. The little 2-coach trains leave the coast, grind their way through the blackened industrial landscape of Teesside, to finally link with the main line at Darlington. I decided to catch an earlier train than strictly necessary in order to make my mainline connection comfortably. However, without any notice, the train was cancelled. It never turned up! I stood on the platform with several bemused fellow passengers all thinking “What do we do now?” It was a tense wait to see if the next scheduled train was going to turn up. I sat in the platform shelter, read my paper and tried desperately not to bite my nails. Finally it came — 2 minutes late. My relief was palpable. For the past half hour I had been worrying that the whole trip was in jeopardy!

  So I made my connection and caught the mainline express at “Darlo.” We sped smoothly south. I enjoyed looking at the Cleveland and Hambleton Hills to my left and was looking forward to seing York’s ancient Minster and medieval city walls. You don’t get that on the A1! I was also looking forward to reading my novel. However, my reserved seat was right next to a noisy, high spirited Geordie “Hen Party”. There were 6 of them, heavily made up and  sporting funny hats and gaudy Dame Edna Everidge specs. Pink balloons announced to the world who they were, as if we didn’t know! They were drinking sparkling wine, telling jokes and laughing and shrieking at the tops of their voices. They were obviously having fun  and seemed pleased that they had an audience, albeit a reluctant one, to perform to. After a noisy half hour, Dawn’s Hen partiers stumbled off the train at York, sloshing drink over everybody as they went. They were replaced by a quiet group of Chinese students reading their textbooks and testing each other. So the next half hour to Doncaster was much calmer.

  At Doncaster I swapped trains to meander east, up another branch line into the flatlands of North Lincs. My train was terminating at Scunthorpe but others on this line, went on to the delights of Grimsby and Cleethorpes. A long time ago I went on several Sunday School trips to Cleethorpes, where we sat on the sand and gazed at the pier. There were very few distractions or amusements. It was pretty boring. I remember vowing never to go there again. I also remember the overpowering stench of fish as we passed through Grimsby docks. However, I had never been to Scunthorpe — its heavy industry putting me off.

  Our little train passed through a flat landscape punctuated by drainage ditches, short lines of poplars acting as wind breaks and gaunt forests of wind turbines. It was obvious that we were not far from the Fens with its similar flat, desolate landscape. We stopped at little places that I had never heard — Thorne, Crowle, Althorpe. Hardly anyone got on or off. It was a bit like the end of the world. Soon the train starting to run parallel to a long, straight canal. (the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation). It went on for miles and miles without even a hint of a boat or any human life. All I spotted was: a couple of ducks, a coot and a cormorant on the far bank, poised to strike. Eventually, after half an hour of monotony, we crossed a large river on a big  metal bridge of soaring green girders. ( Think of a smaller version of the Forth Rail bridge in Scotland.) I later learnt that this was the River Trent on the last few miles of its journey to the Humber, just south of Hull. It flowed through a largely empty landscape, much of it reclaimed land from the Humber estaury.

After all this excitement we finally arrived at Scunthorpe station. I had a fair amount of time and wanted to see a bit of the town before going to the match. However, the town centre was nowhere to be seen. I seemed to be on a semi-main road on the edge of an old housing estate. I resisted the temptation to get into one of the hopefully waiting taxis and followed a small blue sign indicating town centre and bus station. I passed the “Scunny Car Wash”, my first sign of life and walked on. Few people were around and I had no obvious clues, such as a church spire or tall public building to guide me in. Eventually, at a confusing junction I met a young woman and her son. I asked the way. Apparently I was only 5 minutes outside the centre, but then she added that there were hardly any decent shops there and they all now go to Tescos!

 At last I got to the centre. It was a late 60’s/early 70’s pedestrianised shopping precinct — neat, clean but anonymous. There didn’t seem to be any old, interesting or distinctive buildings. Yet the town goes back a long way and was actually mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1085. It got it’s slightly unfortunate name from the old Norse “Escumesthorpe, which translated, means “Skuma’s Household.” The precinct today however, celebrates the town’s more recent history. It’s  called “The Foundry Shopping Centre.” Just in case you’ve forgotten: Scunthorpe is an iron and steel town. It sits on a large bed of iron ore and limestone and became heavily industrialised in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the background, near the shops, I could see the Tata Steelworks, still dominating the centre. Further out I spotted the large, concrete cooling towers of the Drax Power Station. At its height Scunthorpe had 4 large blast-furnaces, all named after Queens: Mary, Bess, Anne and Victoria. However the town has struggled since the sharp decline of its heavy industry in the 1980’s and 90’s. The iron and steel workforce has shrunk from 27,000 to around 4,500 and is just about hanging on by its fingernails. The mines had all gone by 1981 as it was cheaper to ship in foreign ore. Scunthorpe’s boom years appear to be behind it. The town centre seemed very quiet for a Saturday lunchtime. Maybe that young woman was right and they had all gone to Tescos! I had a quick snack at the Jazz Cafe and then asked for directions to the football ground.

I knew the Scunthorpe United ground was out of the centre. The club’s advice was to take a taxi from the station to avoid the long walk. Buses out there seem to be infrequent. It was a fine day so I decided to walk. I took directions and learnt it was a long, straight, 2 mile hike if I turned left at Primark. So I did. My linear route out of town was a bit like a geography lesson. The newer shops of the precinct soon gave way to older, more decrepit businesses in Victorian or Edwardian terraces. Old houses in bare streets gave way to 1930’s leafier suburbs. Next came modern housing estates and finally the out of town retail park just off a busy roundabout near the motorway. ( the M181, a spur of the M180) I did pass a few, large, older buildings — a church, a private school, a red-brick arts centre being modernised but only half finished. On the edge of town were a couple of big pubs — the type that people drive out to for Sunday dinner or to watch a match on the giant screen.

I started to worry that I had gone wrong and quickened my step to catch up with a couple of blokes walking a little in front of me. But as I got closer I could hear that they were speaking a strange eastern European language. I remembered reading that the newer engineering and food processing factories had a large Polish and Slovak workforce. A young woman pushing a baby buggy told me that she “thought” the ground was about half a mile away. This was only slightly reassuring. Would I find the football ground in time? Would I miss the match that I had gone to so much trouble to see? It’s a shame that so many English football grounds are  out of town and thus more difficult to locate. The close link between the club and the community it belongs to has been partly severed. Newcastle United’s St James’s Park, is an honourable exception. The stadium still dominates the city and the roar of the crowd can be heard all over the centre.

I passed the “Welcome to Scunthorpe- Industrial Garden Town” sign and kept walking. But then I spotted the reassuring sight of the floodlight pylons of Glanford Park, and suddenly I was following scores of people, all walking in the same direction wearing their claret and pale blue shirts, scarves and hats. I kept my blue and white Spireite scarf hidden safely in my bag, although, to be honest, the atmosphere was easy going and friendly. Thankfully, the days of football violence are mostly over. Scunthorpe’s ground, built in the 1970’s, is part of a retail park just off the motorway. It shares the space with M and S, Debenhams, Boots, Costa Coffee and Subway. The whole lot is surrounded by large car parks. Here was Scunthorpe’s alternative town centre. It’s not actually in Scunthorpe! No wonder the real centre was so quiet. Everything is organised around the car, such that many matches up and down the country begin and end with a traffic jam.

  I collected my ticket and went through the turnstyle of the “Away End”. Here I met a sea of blue and white — the travelling Spireites. I reckoned there were about 700-800 of us in a total crowd of 3,800. I put on my scarf and grabbed a seat high up behind the goal. When you’re an away supporter, you usually have to go behind one of the goals. The atmosphere is great as we’re all squashed together, but the action is telescoped and you cannot judge distances very clearly. It was suddenly wierd to be amongst loads of people from my home town, all speaking in broad Derbyshire accents and calling each other “duck.”

  The whole stand smelt like a giant, steaming meat pie. This is still the standard fare of many football grounds, along with beer and Bovril.( actually, I think the popularity of that famous beef broth is at last on the wane.) On the stand opposite us I saw a  massive advert for PUKKA PIES. Maybe it’s not the healthiest of sponsers for a sports team! The players were out practising and the crowds chanting and singing, warming up their vocal chords for the actual match. The Chesterfield chants seemed to consist largely of “slagging off” Scunthorpe rather than extolling  the praises of their team. Basically they were saying that Scunthorpe was a dump, but they used a ruder word than that. It’s a pity that fans have to be so negative, but that’s actually one of the attractions of going to a match. You can be as negative and foul mouthed as you like and nobody cares. Expletives are just par for the course. ( so long as they are not racist.) No doubt the Iron fans were singing rude stuff about us as well, but we couldn’t hear them as they were at the opposite end of the ground. In fact they seemed to be so quiet that our lot suggested that their team was playing in a library!

  The atmosphere was great and building by the minute, and then I saw it — the “Scunny Bunny”. A man ( or woman) dressed in a slightly tatty Bugs Bunny outfit ran right in front of us waving and giving us thumbs -up signs. It is a quaint but charming custom for every team in the football league to have a nickname and to have a mascot. At Chesterfield we have a big grey  mouse , amusingly dubbed “Chester Fieldmouse” Ha Ha! So I now was confronted by the legendary “Scunny Bunny” his Scunthorpe counterpart. It was a memorable moment!

  The match itself was full on. It was 90 minutes of: hope, expectation, disappointment, frustration, and tension with explosions of anger and/or joy . I suppose the atmosphere must be very like it was in the Roman Colosium, except the gladiators now wear shirts, shorts, socks and boots. The action was full-blooded and fortunes swayed from one side to the other and then back again. To quote the well known football cliche: it was “a game of two halves.” The Iron were on top in the first half, but the Spireites came roaring back after the break. The final score was a fair 1-1 draw. When Chesterfield equalised right in front of us, everybody went berserk. We all experienced an irresistable surge of pure adrenaline. That’s why we go to watch football!

 Then it was the long journey home — the same 3 trains, but this time with half an hour waits at each station. I just holed up in a cafe with a coffee and my book. My last train was held up by a fight in the other carriage. Police were  waiting to haul the miscreants off the train at Middlesbrough. It was another one of the “joys” of public transport. Arriving home at last, I looked back on a fascinating, unpredictable and stimulating day. It had been much preferable to sitting on the sofa and watching the 6 Nations Rugby. Live sport is always far superior to  watching it on the screen, no matter how big. And just think, I had had my first, unforgettable encounter with the legendary “Scunny Bunny.”

Olympics, 2012 — The Positive Side of Patriotism.

20 Sep

  Is patriotism a good thing? The answer as usual is both “yes” and “no”. It is certainly good to feel a sense of pride in the achievements of one’s country and countrymen ( and women.) As a citizen of the United Kingdom I experienced the great feel-good factor generated by my country’s successes at the London Olympics and Paralympics. As each medal was won and personal best broken by British and Northern Irish athletes, I too walked tall and basked in the reflected glow of their success. My pride increased as our position in the medal table got higher and higher. ( However, I do admit to worrying about the feelings of the athletes who came 4th or below and whether they thought of themselves as failures who had let the country down somehow. It was sad to hear our top male 400 metres runner apologise on television for finishing outside the medal positions.)

   I also felt great about Andy Murray’s victory in the US Tennis Open, the first Grand Slam title to be won by a British man since Fred Perry in 1936. What a great achievement for Britain, even though as a child, Andy was packed off to tennis school in Spain to learn his skills and is now coached by a Czech.( the great Ivan Lendl.) Although Andy is not one of the most lovable characters on a tennis court, with his snarling and swearing, I still supported him because he is British like me and so in a small way I revelled in the glory of his fantastic achievement. Patriotism, especially in sport, can be a positive, life-affirming force. One person’s or team’s achievements can raise the self esteem of a whole nation.

  Unfortunately, patriotism, if taken too far, can also lead to undesirable consequences. What happens if the support for one’s country is so fervent that it becomes bellicose and negative. What happens if it leads to bias and the failure to recognise other nations’ achievements. This drift into negativity is particularly noticable in football where the other team and its supporters become the “enemy” and are sometimes greeted with verbal and even physical aggression. The tabloid press often whips up negative emotions by talking about “grudge matches”, “revenge”, and “hatred”,mentioning past wars and indulging in national stereotyping. So we get Argentinian players described as “cheats” following their exaggeration of injuries or off the ball fouling behind the referees back, while German teams are routinely labelled as coldly mechanical and efficient.

  Patriotism can also easily morph into chauvenism. In world affairs such chauvenism on both sides has led to the tragedy of war. In the world of sport it can lead to: tension, animosity and trouble. Luckily, this negative trait seem to have been largely avoided at the recent Olympics in London. Reports say that our enthusiastic British crowds cheered and applauded the achievements of competitors from many different nations as well as their own. To a certain extent it seems to have been a celebration of sport rather than of nationalism. This can only be a good thing. I suppose it’s what the modern Olympic ideal is all about — bringing people together from all over the World in a spirit of peace and togetherness, simply to celebrate sporting endeavour and excellence. My friend Vic, who was at Hyde Park to witness the Triathlon, was so impressed by this feeling of international friendship that he compared it to the rebirth of the 1960’s Hippie Dream. Can you remember those heady, idealistic days of “Flower Power” when The Beatles sang “All You Need Is Love” and we all fervently wished that that would be true. The media dubbed it “The Summer of Love” ( 1967), but many of us hoped it would last a lot longer than that. It is indeed a very good thing if just a little of the spirit of that age has been re-ignited.

  London 2012 certainly seems to have been an inspirational event and it’s a pleasure to be writing about good news instead of carping on about the bad. Please note for the record, that I am not a “grumpy old man” all of the time! Patriotism  seems to have been a mostly positive force this summer, although it was helped immensely by the home team winning lots of medals, the Union Jack being frequently hoisted and “God Save the Queen” being constantly sung. ( by those of her “subjects” who knew the words.)  Success breeds tolerance and generosity of spirit.

  On only a few occasions did I notice one of patriotism’s less desirable features — selective blindness. Another friend, Ian, commented that whenever a UK competitor won a silver or a bronze medal, we heard all about their story in the media but virtually nothing about the foreign athlete who had actually won the gold. It was as if that Olympic Champion was invisible because he or she wasn’t British. There was the odd exception of course, such as Usain Bolt, but largely the foreign champions remained in obscurity. The BBC and Channel 4 coverage was generally regarded as excellent. I only dipped into it every now and again, not wishing to turn into a total couch potato. However, I was disappointed to catch the discussion about the Womens’ 1500 metres final where two Turkish girls won Gold and Silver in impressive style. Looking at the replay, their running was sheer poetry in motion. The 2 brave British girls tried hard and had done very well to get to the final, but they came well down the field. After briefly mentioning that these were Turkey’s first ever athletics medals at the Olympics, the presenter quickly pointed out that the winner had recently come back from a drugs ban. The implication was that she had possibly cheated her way to success. The whole ensuing discussion was thus about drugs misuse instead of Turkish success.The BBC commentators failed to mention that 2 British athletes, one male and one female, had also competed in the Olympics  after serving bans for taking performance-enhancing drugs. In fact , one had gone on to win gold and silver at consecutive Olympics. It seems that patriotic TV presenters notice foreign “drug cheats” but fail to see British ones.

  Another example of patriotic blindness is in the adoption of foreign athletes as British ones. One remembers the South African distance runner Zola Budd, helped by the Daily Mail, having her British citizenship application processed in record time so that she was able to run for Britain at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She couldn’t run for her own country because its apartheid system had led to it being banned from the games, but “luckily” she had a British grandparent. We have also had this phenomenum in the case of South African cricketers: Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Kevin Petierson all qualifying to play for England and the Canadian born tennis player Greg Rusedski ( German father, English mother) representing Britain in the Davis Cup. In the London Olympics, one of the most celebrated “British” successes was that of Mo Farrah who won both the 10,000 and the 5000 metres in fantastic style. However, everyone basking in the glow of his victories seem to have forgotten that he was actually born in the Sudan and does most of his training in the USA under an American coach. Is this really a British success? I suppose it’s as big an achievement for Britain as one of Pieterson’s centuries.( when he is not tweeting his South African mates in the middle of a test match.)

  But I’m falling into one of the traps of patriotism myself. Surely, sporting excellence is great irrespective of nationality? We should not, in my opinion, be blinkered into only seeing our own countrymen’s successes. I believe we ought to celebrate the achievement of the human being rather than the flag he or she happens to be playing under.

   Patriotism then can be a powerful force for good, but has to be handled with care. if kept under control it can make a whole nation feel positive about itself and can help to inspire a new generation to emulate the achievements of their compatriots. If allowed to run out of control it can lead to bias and unfairness and worse. Thankfully, London 2012, seems to have largely avoided these pitfalls. It was a celebration of internationalism at its best and a welcome victory for the forces of good. Despite my slight moans and gripes, I really enjoyed the games. They turned out to be a spectacular example of the positive side of patriotism.

Is It Good That Manchester City Have Won The Premier League?

26 May

1. Wiping the Smile off Ferguson’s Face.  — On May 13th, 2012, Manchester City FC scored two injury time goals in their last match to clinch their first top flight championship in 44 years. It was a thrilling finish to the season as they snatched the coveted title from their city rivals Manchester United. on goal difference. Veteran players from the last title winning team in 1968 such as Tony Book, Mike Summerbe and Francis Lee, brought out the trophy, bedecked with light blue ribbons. They presented it to the current team, an international collection of all-stars, in front of their adoring fans. Everyone was happy, except for the red half of Manchester, which just for once got to sample the bitter taste of defeat. The City fans were ecstatic. Many were crying tears of joy after at last witneesing their team triumph after many years of disappointment.

  The pundits were happy too. Afterall, wasn’t it good for football that the Premiership had been won by a new team? The Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal monopoly had at last been broken. Surely this is good for English football as it shares the spoils more widely and increases competition at the top end of the league. Many football commentaters were also pleased for the long-suffering City fans who had endured many more downs than ups and were almost resigned to seeing defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. It nearly happened again, until those magical moments in last match injury time.

  So City’s triumph is a good thing isn’t it? Anything that can wipe the smile off Sir Alex Ferguson’s face must be good, in my eyes. Anything that can banish Wayne Rooney’s arrogant smirk ( at least for a while) has to be welcomed. The United players, who in recent years have taken success for granted, must have been ” gutted” and “as sick as parrots” to quote two of football’s corniest cliches.

  However, Manchester City’s great victory left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Here are some reasons why I have experienced  feelings of unease.

2. Buying Success. ——- The secret of success in life is: hard work sustained over a long period in order to develop one’s talents to the full. When I was a teacher I often told my pupils this in order to increase their motivation and effort. “If you don’t work hard, you won’t pass your exams. If you don’t pass your exams, you won’t have any qualifications to get a good job” etc. You know the argument. Teachers and parents have used it, quite rightly, for centuries. Until recently, the same argument applied to the running of a successful football club. The hard work consisted of: scouting for young players, grooming and preparing them through youth development schemes, spotting and buying more experienced players and blending them into the team, meticulous planning and preparation with regards to fitness, diet, strategy , tactics and motivation, lots and lots of training, the generation of team spirit and discipline, and so on and so forth. It is often said that “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. In other words there are no short cuts to genuine success.  Recent developments in the entertainment world however have started to undermine this sensible approach to life. Now reality TV combined with tabloid and glossy magazine coverage, can provide instant fame and fortune for people with little or no talent and who have not really worked very hard or for very long to gain their riches.

  The other way that the long road to success can be circumvented is to spend a lot of money. Everything and everyone has a price it seems.This is the route that Manchester City have taken once they were taken-over by mega-rich new owners. In 2008, City were purchased by the Abu Dhabi United group for Development and Investment. Abu Dhabi is a vastly rich Persian Gulf state owning about 10% of the world’s oil reserves. The company which has bought Manchester City Football Club consists of super wealthy sheiks from the Royal Family that controls Abu Dhabi and its immense fortune. City have therefore become a “Petro-Dollar plaything.” Thanks to television, Premiership football has become a global phenomenon. By buying a Premier League club, the super-rich sheiks have bought into the glitz, the glamour and the action. They will also get much publicity and prestige. So Manchester City, a proud club, with a long, rich history, has been reduced to becoming a brand name in the international world of marketing.

  City no longer has to bother to balance its books, to make sure that expenditure doesn’t exceed income. Now the norm is to spend, spend, spend. This would be business suicide in any normal club, but when you are backed up by one of the world’s richest countries, then there is no worry. City have just announced the largest operating loss in the entire history of the high spending Premier league. That’s taken some doing. But do they care? Not a bit of of it it seems. In fact they have already announced their intention to buy one of Spain’s most talented and expensive players to strengthen the team for next season. They no longer have to raise revenue before purchasing players and do not have to worry about the patient, long-term development of young players. They can now break all the rules and acquire success the quick way by buying ( some would say “stealing”) other club’s best players. Patience and delayed gratification have now gone out of fashion. If one has enough money one can go straight for instant gratification. City’s new owners seem to be saying -” We want  success and we want it now!”

  Manchester City have achieved their dazzling ” success” by complete chance. The super-rich Arab Royals could have chosen: Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Scunthorpe United or even Accrington Stanley. The result would have been just the same except that with the lower league clubs, it would have taken a bit longer. City just happened to be available, as their previous owner, a dodgy Thai politician and businessmen, had got into trouble with the courts, being accused of fraudalent practices. He had to get rid quickly so was pleased to sell to the Sheiks when they came knocking. They were happy to acquire a Premier league club that would increase their prestige and profile. It could have been any club, but it just happened to be Manchester City!

  So how does a club craving instant success go about buying it, if it has limitless resources? Well, it uses it’s money to attract the top managers and coaches. It uses its money to create the best facilities. Finally it uses its money to buy other clubs’ best players. First of all it pays ridiculously high transfer fees that only a fool would refuse. Then it pays obscenely high salaries to make the top players want to come. If a player is already legally contracted to another club that is still no obstacle. The rich club ( in this case- City) lets it be known that it is interested in the player; the player becomes unsettled and unhappy because the grass now appears to be a lot greener on the other side; if the player’s club points out he is under contract and refuses to sell, the player is then encouraged to request a transfer and state that he is no longer happy to stay at the club he has signed to play for; no club wishes to retain an unhappy player who is no longer motivated to play his best; therefore the club reluctantly accepts the vastly inflated transfer fee and the player disappers to collect his riches. This scenario played out in the cases of Gareth Barry ( lured away from Aston Villa), Joleon Lescott ( lured away from Everton), and Samir Nasri.( lured away from Arsenal), to name just three cases. All three ripped up their contracts and walked away from the clubs that had nurtured and developed them into top internationals. All three are now playing for Manchester City and reaping in vast amounts of money. ( more than most ordinary people can imagine.) In all three cases their former clubs were left with major problems in trying to replace them at short notice.

  City’s management team led by Roberto Mancini refused to take “no” for an answer. In the case of Nasri, a player contracted to Arsenal, Mancini spoke quite openly to the press about his intention to sign him, saying that his team was not yet complete.After that, money did the talking. It seems that limitless resources can enable one to ride roughshod over normal manners, business etiquette and professional conduct.

  City are not the only rich club to do this of course. When Chelsea FC became the plaything of Russian billionairre, Roman Abramovich, they too went down the “instant success” road, buying other club’s best players and sacking a whole string of hard-working managers who failed to deliver fast enough. Players under contract, such as Ashley Cole at Arsenal, were approached undercover and acquired anyway, probably by unprofessional means. Big money doesn’t worry about professional niceties or rules. It will try to buy success at any cost. Chelsea have just won the coveted Champion’s League. Abramovich was there in Munich to see what his plaything had achieved. Is this good for football? I don’t think so.

3. Is Manchester City’s Success Good For Abu Dhabi and the World in General? —- One could argue that Manchester City have not really achieved any success. This achievement belongs to Abu Dhabi, a state that by a complete fluke, is sitting on top of one of the World’s richest oil fields. Maybe it would be more acceptable if they changed their name to Abu Dhabi United, if they trained in the desert and travelled to matched by camel. But would this be suitable and appropriate for one of the oldest, proudest football clubs in the country that invented the game? I don’t suppose all those elated City fans would be very thrilled if they had to fly to the Persian Gulf to watch every “home” match. Is there a long and strong footballing tradition in the United Arab Emirates? I don’t think so! Is the UAE’s football pedigree the reason why Qatar has been awarded a future World Cup Tournemant, or is it because the Qatari’s are awash with oil money as well and FIFA wants to grab as much of the wealth as it can?

  I would argue that Manchester City’s 44 year wait is not really over. The real football club has not won anything because it is really just a front  for an Arab business venture. In achieving the title, the heart and soul, tradition and history of the club has been ripped out and destroyed. All that is left is a travesty. A once proud club has been hijacked by an obscure Arab elite who know very little about grass-roots football and are just using it as a vanity-project and business venture.The chief Sheik — Mansoud — is so interested in Manchester City and football that he only came to one game in the entire season and didn’t even bother to turn up to see them clinch the title! Can you imagine a real football fan not attending what is potentially the greatest day in the history of the club?

  So what about the people  of Abu Dhabi? Are they proud of their great achievement? Were they dancing in the streets when the news came through from Manchester? When I was watching Sky Sports’ coverage of the great day I expected the cameras to cut from celebration in the blue half of Manchester to jubilation amongst the soaring skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi. Afterall, their team, bought with their country’s money, had just won and beaton off the challenge of their greatest rivals: Manchester United. But there was no celebration. The ordinary citizens of Abu Dhabi have no connection with the football club that their country’s revenue has purchased.

  Abu Dhabi is not a democracy. Its people have no say in what happens to the country’s vast amounts of oil money. Power and control has been commandered by a small hereditary clique and used as their own private income. Some would argue that the people of Abu Dhabi have been mugged by their own rulers. They have been robbed of their country’s God-given inheritance by their own despotic Royal family. These undemocratic Sheiks have acquired a football club which is totally alien to the culture of the people of the Persian Gulf. They have done this in order to gain prestige and status in the World’s eyes. The ruling elite of Abu Dhabi has been in competition with the equally unrepresentative ruling elite of Dubai, another formerly oil rich Gulf state, for World attention. The two of them have competed to build the highest skyscrapers and turn their capitals into mini New Yorks. The two of them have competed to host prestigious sports events with top players attracted by the immense prize money.

  Both states have undemocratic ruling cliques, intent on creating capitals of glitz and bling, more in common with Las Vegas than the  traditional, simple bedouin lifestyle of their people. These ordinary citizens have not been consulted about any of this and have no choice but to acquiese in the purchase of expensive, irrelevant vanity projects such as a football club in a cold, damp far-away city.

 The Abu Dhabi United group have thrown almost £1 billion at the Manchester City project. With that money they could have provided clean water for every person in Africa. With that money they could have done a tremendous amount to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease in their own continent of Asia. But these charitable actions would not have garnered much prestige or glamour. Poor people do not attract glamour and do not generate constant drama and excitement for the world’s TV audiences. That’s because poor people live in the harsh conditions of real life, not the fake, frothy world of entertainment which football is part of.

4. The End of Integrity, Trust and Loyalty.  — It used to be the case that football players largely honoured their contracts. Now they cannot be trusted to stick to their word if a rich suitor comes knocking. It used to be the case that clubs respected each other’s integrity. Now clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea treat others with contempt by openly poaching their players even if they are still under contract. These super rich clubs have no compunction about ripping up their own employee’s contracts either. If a manager or a coach doesn’t deliver, he is summarily sacked. As with everything else, money is used to achieve this aim, in the form of the sweetener of compensation for the dismissed employee. Mark Hughes was sacked by City because he was trying to build up a long-term project and was not able to conjure up instant success. Ranieri, Grant, Scolari, Ancelotti and Villas-Boas, all managers employed by Chelsea and poached from other clubs, were all sacked when they they failed to win the league or the Champions’ League in their first seasons. Would Mancini, City’s current manger, have survived if his side had not hit those two late goals to win the league by a whisker?

Patience and trust are not qualities exhibited by billionairre football owners.

  Then we come to the players. In recent memory, quite a few top footballers remained loyal to one club and developed a very special relationship with its fans. Bobby Moore, England’s World Cup winning captain in 1966, played for West Ham United for his entire career. Bobby Charlton always played for Manchester United. In an earlier era, another top England international, Johnny Haynes, always played for unfashionable Fulham and Nat Lofthouse was Bolton Wanderers through and through. Such long term loyalty is very rare in the top leagues these days. Most Premier League clubs consist of stars from across Europe, Africa and Latin America, rather than lads spotted in the local area.  These players are little more than mercenaries attracted by the big wages. The history and the tradition of the club mean little if anything to them. Carlos Tevez has travelled from Argentina to Manchester City, not because he wants to be part of a glorious footballing tradition or because he has a special affinity with the ordinary people of North-West England. The big attraction for Carlos is the £250,00 he is paid every single week to wear the chalky blue shirt. Only two of his team-mates, Hart and Richards, played for the team before the Arab billionairres moved in. The rest — from Spain, Italy, Bosnia, Ivory Coast, Argentina and Belgium ( plus other places I don’t know about)– are there  primarily for the dosh. If the Sheiks pulled the plug tomorrow, most of this mercenary team would have probably disappeared within a few months. This is because City would have to return to the reality of being a normal football club that has to try to make ends meet or go bankrupt.

It’s good that Manchester United, another club with lots of money, has been knocked off its perch. However, this is looking at the situation from a very narrow football point of view. From most other viewpoints, City’s success is not so good. Too many precious principles and time honoured traditions have been sacrificed in the ruthless rush for success. The price of City’s triumph has been unacceptably high in my opinion. Patience, prudence, integrity and decency have been sacrificed to impatience, greed and ruthlessness. The people of Manchester have had their club stolen from them, just as the disenfranchised people of Abu Dhabi have been robbed of their natural inheritance. Which ever angle one looks at it from, Manchesters City’s so-called triumph is far from a good thing.

The Other Side of Football — Up The Spireites!

1 Feb

It’s difficult to write about football ( or soccer) with any objectivity. Thanks to saturation coverage in the media, its importance has been inflated to ridiculous levels. Hooliganism has been largely sorted in Britain ( though not completely) but other unsavoury developments constantly rear their ugly heads. Numerous Premier League clubs have become the playthings or part of the cooperate business- plan of foreign billionairres, be they Russian, American or Gulf Arab. Top level players are paid unbelievably high salaries that are an insult to every ordinary working person in the country. I heard of one highly paid footballer who regularly burnt £50 notes to impress his mates in the pub. Top players are now ranked alongside film and TV stars as A-List celebrities, their every move, utterance or tweet given the full glare of publicity. Then there are the armies of followers, dazzled by the hype, wealth, fame and success, who attach themselves to the biggest and richest clubs. Many of these so-called supporters don’t even come from or live in the place where their team is based. Many “fans” don’t actually come from the same country! The power of television has made football into a global force, and an important part of the show-business industry. Thus we get the strange, confusing situation of finding droves of Manchester United, Chelsea, Milan or Barcelona fans throughout Africa, Asia and all parts of Europe!

Famous players are mobbed and idolised when they visit these far-flung outposts of their club’s empire. Gullible fans may not even realise that the visit has only been organised in order to sell more replica shirts and club merchanise to generate yet more wealth for the “business.” How can a person support a team which he/she can never get to see live? I don’t understand. This blog isn’t about that side of football — the false, over-hyped worlds of the Premier league, La Liga or Serie A. It’s about the other side of football that doesn’t appear in the celebrity mags, the back pages of the tabloids or on Match of the Day. This is the football of the poorer, unfashionable clubs who struggle on despite: low attendances, financial hardship and perennial lack of real success.

Every Saturday, towns up and down the land witness a curious ritual. Men of all shapes, sizes and ages, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, all start walking in the same direction at around the same time. A few women mingle in with them but it’s mostly men. Cars too, head for the same destination, starting to thicken and clog up the streets as the goal gets closer. Special buses deliver yet more people. Almost all are bedecked in scarves, hats or shirts of the same colour, as if they are in uniform. If this was a Sunday in days gone by, you might think that the throng was making its way dutifully to church. But this is a Saturday and the hallowed focus of the pilgrimage is the football ground or stadium. Its large stands and tall floodlight pylons rear up, dwarving the buildings around. The football ground is the modern equivalent of the cathedral or of Ancient Rome’s Colosseum or Circus Maximus. It is a place where people can go to forget their troubles, even if only for a couple of hours. Today it’s not bread, circuses or rousing sermons that are fed up to the “masses” but football and more football ( and perhaps “reality TV”). Football is in some ways the new religion. Loyal fans flock to worship their idols, pray for a win, take part in communal call- and- response chanting and exercise blind faith. The similarities between a football crowd and a church congregation are striking.

For many ordinary supporters, football is not the glamour of the Premiership or the Champions’ league (except on the telly.) It is shivering on a terrace on a freezing winter’s afternoon, watching a rubbish game littered with clumsy mistakes and supporting a side that’s not won anything for decades and probably never will. This is what I call “grass-roots football”, where supporters shout and cheer for their team irrespective of their position in the league. They would despise the pseudo- fans who only support sides that are at or near the top. These are dismissed as “fair-weather supporters” and awarded scant respect. Real, grass roots fans are always there, through rain and shine, cheering, moaning, screaming, groaning, often swearing, but always hoping. They root for artisans rather than artists. Constant failure and disappointment is hard to swallow but the genuine fan grins and bears it. There’s always next week or next season. Football at this level breeds stoicism, not a bad quality to have amongst the modern clamour for instant gratification. It also breeds incredible loyalty. I know a lifelong supporter of Chester City, a team that was relegated from the football league and thrown out of the next league down because it’s lack of finance meant it couldn’t pay the coach firm to take it to away fixtures. Chester City, a proud, historical club, was declared bankrupt and ceased to exist a couple of years ago. However, my friend Andy and thousands of other Chester supporters, refused to give up. Chester was reformed as a “phoenix club” on the basis of money proferred by loyal fans and resumed life in the “Evostick League North”, 2 or 3 levels below the actual Football league. One super rich Premiership player, Michael Owen, donated one of his race-horses to the Chester cause. That alone shows the  enormous disparity between the top and the bottom in football. The resurrection of Chester also illustrates the lengths that real grass-roots fans are willing to go to support their clubs. As I write, the same sort of thing is happening at unfashionable Darlington FC –” The Quakers”

This unstinting loyalty is a major characteristic of a genuine football fan, irrespective of whether he/she is following a “big club” or one of the many small ones. Unfortunately this does not often happen with the players, especially in the higher echelons of the game. It seems that, aided and abetted by agents, many will move clubs simply to get more money or easier success. They may kiss the badge upon scoring but then “desert” the club that has nurtured them and developed their talents in order to earn mega-bucks elsewhere. Manchester City’s team is stacked full of such “mercenaries” attracted by the high salaries on offer. Loyal fans, who do not switch clubs, regard these money-hungry players as “traitors” and they get roundly booed whenever they re-appear at their former home ground. My Uncle Victor has not switched clubs since he was 8 years old. He is now 93 and still is an avid supporter of his home town team. Loyalty may seem an old-fashioned concept in this modern age of every one for himself ( herself) but it is still an admirable and important quality to possess. It is present in bucketfuls amongst fans, especially in the lower leagues.

Football at this level is not always a happy experience. A lot of pain and frustration has to be endured. So why do thousands take part in this demonstration of masochism every week for 9 months of the year? Being a lower league follower is a bit like being a lemming constantly hovering near the edge of the cliff and flirting with “disaster.”  The question is quite difficult to sensibly answer.

I support one such unglamerous club — Chesterfield FC.  You won’t find many people in Ghana, Malaysia or Japan supporting Chesterfield! Yet it has a long, rich history. It’s the 4th oldest club in the Football League having been founded in 1867, when either Gladstone or Disraeli was Prime Minister and Victoria was just getting comfortable on her throne. Hence it is older than Arsenal, Manchester Utd, Chelsea or Liverpool. We call ourselves the “Spireites” after the town’s famous landmark — the Crooked spire. The local church of St Mary’s had its 13th century spire built with unseasoned timbers such that they warped. The spire was twisted like a cork-screw and from some angles it looks crooked and about to fall down. It’s a bit like an English Leaning Tower of Pisa and has become the symbol of the town and its football club. The crooked spire logo appears on the players’ shirts and supporters’ scarves.

The Spireites have enjoyed little big-time success but still attract a faithful following of between 3000 and 7000 supporters. In the 1930’s we narrowly missed out on promotion to the top division on goal difference. More recently, in 1997, we just failed to get to the FA Cup Final at Wembley because of a referee’s mistake. ( At least we think so.) As in the World Cup Final of 1966, the ball crashed off the cross-bar and bounced behind the goalline, but Chesterfield didn’t have a friendly Russian linesman to award a goal . The referee didn’t allow the goal which would have put us 3-1 up against 10 men with only about 15 minutes to go. So we never made it to the final to face Chelsea. Middlesbrough, our top flight opponants, forced a draw then won the replay with the help of their expensively paid foreign stars. I have always ” hated” Middlesbrough ever since, even though I now live near their ground.

This irrational “hatred”, coming from a normally mild-mannered man, perhaps explains one of the magnetic attractions of the game. In everyday life we can be pleasant and polite as society demands. However at a football match we can be as loud, raucous and rude as we like and it is accepted as “normal” behaviour. A whole gamut of intense emotions can be released within the “safe” confines of the match. Just for that 90 minutes one can become a raving “maniac”, letting the adrenaline run freely, before hopefully going back to ” normal” at the end of the game. My son, Ian, once had to pull me away to safety as I was about to carry out a suicidal one-man pitch invasion at Bradford. The Chesterfield goalkeeper was being surrounded and jostled by a posse of Bradford players and I was so incensed that I would have been on the pitch, literally fighting for my team. Luckily for me, Ian intervened and calmed me down.

Supporters exhibit emotions in a whole variety of ways. Some cheer and sing; others chant and clap. When you do it at the same time as hundreds of other people it can be very exhilerating. Meanwhile, others never seem to stop moaning and complaining, be it about the opposition’s tactics, the perceived mistakes of the officials or the home team’s deficiencies. What is really happening is that the match is acting as a sort of safety valve, helping people to let off steam and release everyday tensions. Some supporters actually sit in silence for much of the match. They are apparently indifferent to what is happening on the pitch, but you can guarantee that on the inside they resemble a boiling volcano ready to blow! Last season I sat near to such a “silent supporter” at a Chesterfield home match. He said nothing for over an hour. Then, after a petty dispute over the award of a throw-in, he suddenly screamed at the linesperson:” Are you bloody blind?” After that solitary outburst, he went back to silent mode for the rest of the match!

It’s strange being a Spireite, an Owl ( Sheffield Wednesday), a Latic ( Oldham Athletic), a Hatter ( Luton Town), or a supporter of the countless other lower league clubs. Success is scarce, failure is common, yet we climb on to the emotional roller-coaster every season. Something in our DNA dictates that we cannot remain indifferent. One’s mood on a matchday or even for the whole subsequent week, depends on the success or failure of 11 men chasing a ball round a field. If they win, we supporters go into work with a spring in our step and a smile on our faces. If they lose we feel strangely depressed and out of sorts. But as I indicated above, this can be seen as a positive thing, for  supporting  a lower club provides excellent emotional training for the realities of life.

Another attraction of following a football team is the feeling of camaraderie that exists. It’s a human need to be with other people and to feel part of something. When thousands come together with the same objective and determined to all pull together, it can be very empowering. In smaller clubs such as Chesterfield FC it’s like belonging to one big, extended family. Being part of it gives one a lovely warm feeling inside. OK, it’s a vicarious world and not our real, everyday life, but it still makes us feel secure and accepted, if only for the duration of the match. Supporters of the same team watch out for each other, greet each other in the street and enjoy each others’ company in the stands. I recently went with my son, Ian, to see Chesterfield playing away at Wycombe Wanderers. Ian, for some incomprehensible reason, is a Newcastle United fan but sometimes helps me to support the little club of my birthplace. We took the train up from London to High Wycombe but just missed the bus that would have taken us out to the ground on the edge of town. The last taxi started to drive off as we approached. It looked as though we were in danger of missing the start of the match. Then I spotted a flash of blue and white in the back of the taxi. It belonged to a Chesterfield fan we had just followed out of the station. I stepped forward and waved frantically. He spotted me and stopped the car to let us in. We had never met before but we were automatically friends and allies because we had all travelled into “enemy” territory to support the “Spires”. The next 20 minutes were full of strange, excitable Spireite talk, incomprehensible to the taxi driver who had probably never even heard of the crooked spire. When we arrived at the ground, Adams Park, our new friend insisted on paying even though I had our half of the fare all ready. He said it was because we were all Spireites. He came from London but he still supported the Spires whenever they ventured south.

It was a cold but exciting day in Wycombe. Chesterfield twice led and I shouted and cheered myself hoarse. ( something I wouldn’t normally do in my “real” life.) Despite my advanced age ( 62) I jumped up and down like a young kid. Football is very good for helping you to shed the years. When we scored, I even found myself hugging complete strangers, the normal barriers of reserve having been swept away by the excitement and drama of the match. When we lost to virtually the last kick of the match, it was like a collective blow in the solar plexus. There was a long low moan then the Chesterfield fans closed ranks in adversity, grimly swallowed defeat and trudged out of the ground hoping that next week would bring better luck.

One season earlier I had had a similar communal experience in a fixture at Darlington. This feeling of togetherness and solidarity is even stronger in away matches. It was a bitter cold Boxing Day with a raw wind whipping into us. Several hundred of us shivered on the terrace behind one of the goals. For 80 minutes, it was an increasingly cold and miserable experience, the only consolation being that we got to practice our Derbyshire grit. The pain increased as Darlington, who we were expected to beat easily, took a two-nil lead. The chanting of the Chesterfield fans was more in defiance than celebration. Apparently, according to the drum- accompanied chants, I had been recruited into “Sheridon’s blue and white barmy-army” ( John Sheridon is the current manager of Chesterfield.) I had to agree that I must have been particularly barmy to leave my warm house to endure this bleak experince. Then, out of the blue, Chesterfield scored 3 goals in 10 crazy, ecstatic minutes! They were scored right in front of us and we all went berserk! As in the match above I found myself leaping up and down, embracing strangers and singing: “We’re Spireites ‘Till We Die!” Insane and inane I know but no-one can deny that for a few heady minutes I was transported on to a different plain. My emotions had surged from one extreme to another and the whole exhilerating experience was magnified because I was sharing it with hundreds of others.

I tell you all this to illustrate that being a football supporter is often about comradeship and togetherness. Being a fan increases one’s sense of identity. Sport, especially football, can give its participants a strong sense of who they are. We all belong to the football, and in my case the Spireite, family. What’s more, this family does not consist of only testosterone-filled, aggressive young men, as is the popular conception. I have sat near to : women and young children, old men with zimmer frames, handicapped people in wheel chairs and even a middle-aged blind woman. She listened to the match commentary on the local radio,assisted by her partially-sighted husband, not being able to see a thing but enjoying the “live” atmosphere.

The live experience is a crucial part of the attraction of a match. Unlike much of our pre-recorded, packaged entertainment industry, a live sports event is completely unpredictable. Literally, anything can happen and quite often does. Who would have thought that bottom of the table Blackburn Rovers would have beaten Manchester United near the top at fortress Old Trafford? Every match is a potentially thrilling journey into the unknown. This applies equally to a match in Chesterfield as it does in Barcelona.

Being a “Spireite” gives me excitement, a strong sense of identity and the ability to patiently cope with constant disappointment. It gives me strong links with the town of my birth, where my original roots were. It strengthens bonds between me and various friends and family who also look out for the team. Even my 85 year old mother mentions the latest score in our weekly telephone conversations. I have just got back in touch with one of my closest school friends after over 30 years of lost contact. We went to many Chesterfield  matches together in the 60’s standing on the “kop” at the old Saltergate ground. Guess what Vic and I talk about at least 50% of the time? He lives in Brighton, I live near Middlesbrough, but we both still support dear old Chesterfield.

I’m pleased that I have grown up with football in my blood. My dad passed it on to me and I have transferred it to my son. I actually know some men and many women who hate football. Some, including my wife, feel sorry for me thinking me immature and silly for caring deeply about the fortunes of 11 men in blue shirts chasing a ball. They may have a point! I share the criticisms of excessive salaries in the Premier league, the antics of some of the players and the often hysterical media coverage. I also share their condemnation of violence and over- the- top aggression, whether it be amongst the fans or out on the pitch. However, I have no intention of joining them in their empty world of indifference.( to football partisanship that is.) I’d rather be passionate about something, even if others think it silly. Why would I want to deny myself: all that excitement, drama, spectacle, skill, history, comradeship, solidarity and strong sense of identity? In some ways I feel sorry for those who don’t wish to involve themselves in this rich world of experience. ( Can shopping offer anything close to all this?) I know it’s like a drug or even a disease but it gives me huge pleasure and a special edge to my life.

These days, Chesterfield FC is so relatively poor that it has to borrow spare players from richer clubs. You might think we supporters would find it difficult to accept them, as they technically have given their allegiance to another team. But to me, it doesn’t matter whether they play for us for 10 years or 90 minutes — as soon as they pull on the blue shirt with its crooked spire logo, they instantly becoming “Spireites,” carrying the hopes and dreams of the thousands on the Chesterfield terraces. Each one has the potential to become part of the club’s history, as a hero or as a villain. Maybe, if he scores a hat-trick or saves a crucial penalty, he could become part of Chesterfield folk-lore. Come on you Spireites! Silly I know, but there you go!

Anyone For Tennis?

27 Jun

It’s Wimbledon fortnight again, the time when many of us think of tennis. It’s always virtually impossible to get on the local courts at Wimbledon time as everyone is on there pretending to be Roger, Rafa or Andy, or maybe Maria, Serena or Caroline. I wonder how many are grunting or screeching, or smashing their rackets in frustration? Tennis is played all through the year, all round the world and on at least 4 different surfaces. However, because of the long- held monopoly of the BBC in the good old days of terrestial television, many people think it is still  only played on lawns in south-west London and for only 2 intensive weeks in June and July.

I love tennis. I’m glad the Tudors invented it and gave it to the world. I have played it on the parks since I was a teenager and watched Wimbledon since I was about 10 years old. I still remember Chuck McKinley and Rod “Rocket” Laver. The brilliant Laver was a leftie like me, but there the resemblence ended.  I recall being impressed that his left arm seemed to be at least twice as wide as his right!  Laver did the tennis grand-slam twice, once as an amateur and once as a professional in the new Open era of the late 60’s — Australia, French, Wimbledon and USA championships in the same year.  I vividly remember  Billie-Jean King and Margaret Court — little and large, but they had some titanic struggles. In those days ( the early 1960’s): the game was dominated by the Americans and the Aussies. It was before the long march of the East Europeans, the Swedes, the French, the Spanish and now: the Chinese. The British keep plodding on. but never seem to arrive, except for Fred Perry in the 1930’s, Ann Hadyn Jones in 1969( also a former World table tennis champion) and Virginia Wade in the Silver Jubilee year of 1977.

Why is tennis so gripping and addictive? Well I believe that the whole of human nature and life is laid bare out there on the court. There is: excitement, drama, skill, imagination, agony, ectasy, determination, hope, triumph and despair etc., etc. We see supreme human strengths and talents but also human weaknesses and failings. It is so much more intense than a team game because it is just one on one — a dual ,out there on the court where there is no hiding place. Sometimes this is not a pretty sight. Some matches, particularly on the slower clay courts, are long, drawn out wars of attrition. Sometimes though, a tennis match is a thing of beauty especially when featuring elegant sliced backhands, subtle drop shots and lobs or unexpected angles in the midst of intricate rallies. At yet other times we are excited and stunned by raw power or supreme athleticism such as an Andy Murray running forehand, an ace by Andy Roddick, a Pete Sampras slam- dunk smash or an Andre Agassi return of serve like a lightning bolt. I also associate watching tennis with my adolescent sexual awakenings. Where else could I observe attractive young women running around in short skirts? How could I ever forget Maria Bueno’s frilly knickers or the ravishing Gabriella Sabatina from Argentina. I don’t think my mum ever cottened on to this aspect of my passion for tennis. It’s funny but I seem to recall that my dad was often sitting there observing the proceedings on Centre Court right there beside me. I wonder who he fancied?

There have been so many great players and fascinating matches.  I recall being incredulous with disappointment when the uncomplicated serving and volleying of the blond, ramrod- straight Stan Smith defeated the wily, creative genius of the dark Rumanian, Ille Nastase( in the early 70’s.). Then there was Jimmy Connors , representing up and coming youth, blasting Ken Rosewell, representing the old guard, right off the centre court. Poor Rosewell, one of the game’s most elegant and skillful players had not had a chance to challenge for the Wimbledon title when at his peak , because professionals were barred from the championships until towards the end of his illustrious career. Thinking of the enormous prize money on offer today, it seems very strange that for over two thirds of the 20th Century, it was open to amateurs only. A year after destroying Rosewell, the seemingly unstoppable Conners was himself destroyed by the calm, serene,  intelligent Arthur Ashe. He out-thought, out-psyched and out-manouvred his young opponent, such that Connors was reduced to pathetically reading a sweat-stained note from his mom, which he had tucked down his sock. Later came the titanic duels between Chris Evert ( “The Ice maiden”) and Martina Navratilove, the great Czech player, and one of the first of many East Europeans to become naturalised Americans  .It still amuses me today when Maria  Sharapova shouts “Come On!” when she wins a crucial point, What’s wrong with saying something in Russian ? Evert later married John Lloyd, an English player, so the nation tried to adopt her as one of their own, even though she was American through and through.The British had tried the same trick a few years earlier when Evonne Goolagong, the delightful and richly talented Australian Aborigene player also married a lucky Englishman and we tried to turn her into an honorary English woman.  Later came the titanic struggles between the cool Swede, Borg, and the hot-headed American, McEnroe.  — the base liner versus the volleyer. Who can ever forget that never- ending and super tense tie- break in the early 1980’s?  My wife went out to furiously mow the  lawn that afternoon, because she couldn’t stand the stress! There have always been gripping battles between great rivals. The next era ( 1990s) brought us Sampras v Agassi and now of course we have the classic encounters between Federer and Nadal . The game has a long, fascinating history and many colourful, charismatic personalities, two big reasons for its enduring appeal.

I was going to make some profound points about the continued elitism of the game in Britain( partly explaining our lack of success even though we invented the game) or write technical stuff about racket development or courtside technology.( such as Hawkeye to sort out disputed calls, or a beeping machine to replace the net cord judge who used to sit touching the top of the net just asking to be clobbered by a wayward fast serve or swerving ground stroke). I could go on and on but I don’t wish to overplay the point. Suffice to say, I have got in the strawberries and cream and am looking forward to watching the second week of Wimbledon, 2011. Will the Williams sisters, sweep all before them? ( I think so.) Will Andy Murray put an end to “decades of hurt? “, at least in the minds of tablods headline writers — I don’t think so. It’s probably going to be Nadal. Federer or perhaps Djokovic. Will the screamers and grunters be disciplined for gamesmanship — they should be. Monica Seles really started something there. I wonder what the inimitable Dan Maskell would have thought of it all. “Oh my gosh, it’s just like an orgasm, and what’s more, it’s the vital seventh game!”” Then, just when we think it’s all over, the great tennis circus moves on to Flushing Meadows , New York —  for those of us with Sky TV that is. The BBC will only show the Murray matches or the Men’s final, if we’re lucky. That’s why for many , tennis equals Wimbledon with : Sue Barker ( it used to be Harry Carpenter), the Royal box ( which the Queen always avoids), umpires and lines people in white caps and silly blazers, Henman Hill or Murray Mount and Sir Cliff always ready to give us a song if it rains. ( except now we have the amazing centre court roof, so there will be no more complete wash-outs.) Wimbledon fortnight is a wonderful part of Britsh life and long may it continue! Anyone for tennis?