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World Cup Fever.

22 Jul

I’m feeling a lot better now. Only a week ago I was still feeling the after-effects of a mid-summer fever that had contagiously spread throughout the nation. People in its grip could talk about little else. Their normal, everyday lives were obliterated. You see, as well as the country experiencing it’s longest drought and heat-wave in years, it was also the football World Cup finals in Russia and England had unexpectantly advanced to the semi-finals. This was their best result since the distant 1990, the year of Lineker’s goals, Gazza’s tears and Bobby Robson’s  dignified leadership.

Getting to the semis again was a dizzying achievement for a national football team which has perennially underachieved and disappointed at the finals of big tournemants. Only 2 years ago England had been bewitched and bemused by mighty Iceland at the European Nations Cup! At the end of that match our highly paid team of Premier League stars, didn’t know whether they were coming or going. For a country that had given the game  to the world and whose top League is supposed to be the richest and most exciting on the planet, it was a huge humiliation to lose to tiny Iceland. Yet another manager (the very decent Roy Hodgeson) was forced to fall on his sword. This year, for the Russian adventure, the English team was led by the relatively untried Gareth Southgate. He had been a stolid central defender for his country, and had been a moderately successful manager of Middlesbrough in the middle reaches of the Premier League. The hopes of the country were resting on the shoulders of a manager untried at senior international level and with only moderate achievements at club level. The omens were not good, but England sailed through their group and qualified for the finals in Russia. Even so, hopes were not high.  Our hapless teams had regularly stumbled at the highest level and our present team was young, relatively inexperienced at international level and lacked any proven, “world-class” players. Thus the expectations of the English nation were low. We had been too often let down. Of course, most Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish fans, whose teams had failed to qualify, looked forward to seeing the English lose and get humiliated, yet again.

It was therefore a pleasant surprise when the England team won their first 2 matches, albeit against fairly humble opposition ( Algeria and Panama), scored a few goals and then actually won a previously dreaded penalty shootout in the last 16 match against the cynical, “pantomine villains” of Columbia. This was a great achievement and a big relief for Southgate who had famously missed a penalty in a shoot-out defeat 20 or so years earlier. Luckily, the reigning World Champions, Germany had been knocked out, victims of their own arrogance ( in the words of their manager), so we now faced Sweden in the quarter finals. Sweden was another country with a much smaller population than England. One of their best players, Larrson had just been released by Hull City, recently relegated to the second tier of English football. Thus England entered the game with confidence and won comfortably, although our goalie, Pickford had to make 2 or 3 brillient saves to keep the Swedes at bay. England won 2-0 and progressed to the dizzying heights of the World Cup semi- finals, where we would meet Croatia who had just knocked out the hosts. Croatia has a population of only 4 million whereas  the English part of the United Kingdom probably has about 40 to 50 million people. So it was another catch-weight contest.  The country was confident if not over-confident. As my mechanic said, when I took the car in for an oil change, “we should easily get past the Croats.”

By now, Word Cup fever had really taken hold of much of the country, whipped- up by the press, TV and social media. People were driving around with little , fluttering red and white flags of St George stuck to their cars. Large versions of the same English flag were hung from bedroom windows on housing estates up and down the country or flew on garden flag-poles. At times I was reminded of driving through the Unionist areas of Northern Ireland earlier in the year. Pubs were full to bursting with beer drinking fans who could not afford the long trip to Russia. Big screens were erected in town and city squares for wildly patriotic supporters to enjoy the England team’s march into the last 4. Cliches and hyperbole were now common place. My Facebook page was daily dominated by patriotic boasting and over- the- top predictions. Apparently, we were going to make history and football was “coming home”, a reference to our invention of  the world’s most popular game. A pop song by the Lightning Seeds — “Three Lions — Football’s Coming Home”, shot to the top of the charts. It seemed to be on everyone’s lips. ( It had originally been composed in 1996, when England had hosted the European Championships — so football was really coming home then.) The whole country seemed to have been taken over by World Cup mania. After the bitter divisions caused by the controversial Brexit vote ( Leavers and Remainers at each other’s throats), it seemed that the UK was now coming together( except for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that is!)

I felt excited but slightly uncomfortable at the same time. I am a football fan and wanted England to win. But I have always been wary of overt, exaggerated patriotism. Simple patriotism ( support for one’s country) can easily spill over into bellicose chauvinism and arrogance. It can quickly change from “our country is great” into “our country is better than others” or “other countries are rubbish.) Flag waving and patriotic songs have also been closely connected with wars in the past. I am particularly sensitive about this sort of thing at the moment because it seems to me that the vote  for the UK to leave the European Union had a lot to do with dislike and/or distrust of foreigners. The same red and white flag of St George has been adopted by parties on the far right of British politics who are openly anti-foreigner, anti-muslem and racist.  The irony is that Saint George was an Italian knight and the red cross on the white background was originally commandeered from the Italian city of Genoa. So the origins of our patron saint and national flag are not English. Come to think of it, the lions on the English team’s shirts are animal from Africa. On top of this, all the English tub- thumping and flag- waving is not good for the unity of the United Kingdom which only just survived a Scottish independence vote a few years ago. Hence, for a variety of reasons I approached the semi-final against Croatia with very mixed feelings.

I watched it of course. I had witnessed, via the TV, every important England World Cup match since 1966. I had seen our famous victory over West Germany at Wembley in a crowded French cafe in Biarritz. I was on my very first trip abroad with my school. To my bemusement, all the French people in the cafe were rooting for Germany. Weren’t the French our allies and the Germans the common enemy in the Second World War?  Anyway I saw Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick and Bobby Moore holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft. Were the team of 2018 going to unbelievably repeat that famous feat? The country held its collectice breath. The media was at fever pitch and in full hyperbole mode.

But, of course it wasn’t to be. English World Cup fever, 2018 style came to a shuddering halt as the second Croatian goal arrived in the first part of extra time. The English team finally looked exhausted and beaten. Optimism rapidly drained away as if from a punctured balloon. England made a valiant attempt at a comeback in the second half of extra time after their final pep talk from the dignified Southgate. However they were now down to 10 men due to injuries and they were up against a World Class Croatian midfield marshalled by Luka Modric (of Real Madrid), which had taken a firm stranglehold over the match. Our brave team were defeated and were reduced to exhaustion and tears. Many fans in Russia and back home also succumbed to despair and tears. They had perhaps believed all the hype and were now crest- fallen.

I was disappointed and felt sorry for the team and the manager that had represented England so skilfully. Like many others, I was actually proud of them. However, being a football realist, I knew that little Croatia had a sprinkling of world class players and could easily match us in spirit, organisation, energy and determination. Being such a young country, born out of the late 1990’s break up of Yugoslavia, they too were extremely patriotic. Apparently, the Croatian team was motivated by the over-the-top boasting and dismissal of their chances in the British tabloid press. Croatia had been grossly under-estimated. Chris and I had had a lovely holiday in Croatia just a few weeks before, so as well as being disappointed for us, I could also be pleased for them. I never had more than a slight dose of the fever anyway. I was still able to do normal things and retain a sense of perspective. I was helped in this by Chris, my wife, who hates all sport, especially football. She refused to watch a ball being kicked. So I recovered from the defeat quite quickly and the fever of overt patriotism subsided throughout the country.

I watched the final where the Croatians dominated possession but lost 2-4 to the French with a bit of help from the referee. ( He awarded a highly debatable free kick and an equally dubious penalty to France.) So football isn’t coming home after all. It’s gone to France, our near neighbour, who we will be soon saying au revoir to. Life has gone back to more or less normal now that the World Cup has ended and the mid-summer “madness” has subsided. Feeling a lot better, we can now concentrate on the tennis, the cricket, the athletics and the golf, not to mention the fantastic Tour de France. Even for sports fans, there is potentially a lot of life beyond football. The only unfinished business to look forward to is Gareth Southgate’s knighthood, even though he didn’t quite equal the great Alf Ramsey!

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Masochistic Away Day.

23 Feb

It was another insane idea. I think I must be going a bit dopey in my old age. The choice was as follows: have a relaxing day at home or undergo 8 hours of train travel and hanging around draughty stations to almost inevitably experience disappointment. I chose the latter of course. I would travel from deepest Cleveland on the north east coast, to the far north west of England to support my team, a team that was next to bottom of the whole football league and had just lost 4 matches in a row. Many people would regard this as mad but I went because it was an adventure and I wanted to show support and loyalty to the team. I think support in times of adversity is real support. If you’ve read my previous blog you might understand this a bit.

I love travel as much as I love sport. Every journey is potentially an exciting adventure. In this case I was travelling to Carlisle but I was also journeying into the unknown. What would happen on the way? Would all my connections work out? What would I find when I got there? This is what happened.

It was an early start. The alarm clock rudely interrupted my sleep at 6-45am. This was like being back at work, a feeling I have largely forgotten since I retired. By 7.55 I was at Saltburn station, joining a small band of sleepy commuters going to work in the shops of Redcar and Middlesbrough. I huddled into my seat as our little, old diesel -railcar ground its way over the points, heading slowly west. I live at the end of a long branchline, and the first stage of any rail journey usually involves painstakingly trundling our way to the main line at Darlington, about 28 miles away. I settled into my book, hoping the miles would disappear more quickly that way. On this journey though, I didn’t have to go all the way to Darlington. I was routed via Hartlepool and Sunderland so had to change at Middlesbrough, and then have a slow but scenic train journey up the Durham coast. The changeover was only 10 minutes and soon I was on my way again. In 1 hour 20 minutes I would be meeting my fellow football masochist, Ian, at Newcastle Central station. Together we would catch the Carlisle connection.

However, you know what they say about the best laid plans. My second train went only one stop to Thornaby ( south Stockton) and then just stood in the platform. I found myself getting restless and started to wriggle around in my seat.After this had been going on for 10 minutes, the guard told us there had been a power failure in the main signal box and until it was fixed, no trains in the area were allowed to move. An electrician had been sent for ( there were none on site) and he had got stuck in traffic. I could see my Carlisle connection going up the swanee and even the one after that. Maybe I would miss the match altogether? Then, an idea started to form in my head. Out of the window I had noticed a regular stream of taxis coming down a drive into the station and dropping passengers off. As worry and frustration bubbled up inside me, I hit upon an escape plan. Seeing another taxi arrive, I leapt off the train, ran across the platform and knocked on the taxi man’s window as he was checking his money. The worst case scenario was that he wouldn’t accept me as a customer because I hadn’t made a proper booking, and then the train would suddenly depart with me stranded on the platform!  That really would have been “sod’s law!”As he wound down the window I asked the driver if he could take me to Darlington station and, thank God, he said “yes.” So in a few seconds, I was on my again, weaving through the rainy, grey streets of Thornaby, heading for Darlington and the main- line.

It was one of those chance encounters one sometimes experiences on journeys. I told the taxi driver where I was going and why, and he replied with stories of the travails of Darlington football club which had gone bust and dropped out of the league. His son had had trials there as a teenager and also at Hartlepool United, another struggling north- east football club. He hadn’t been accepted. The taxi man concluded cynically that success in football is about who you know not about what you can do. He said the whole system is corrupt and very harsh. I think I agree with him.

Within 20 minutes we were at Darlington station on the East Coast mainline. With a bit of luck, I would soon catch a fast train north to Newcastle. As I was paying the fare and saying my goodbye, another taxi man ran up and told my driver that he had a near flat tyre at the back. We looked and the rear passenger- side tyre was doing a good imitation of a pancake! It was only luck that had prevented us from having the flat on the A66 dual- carriageway a few minutes earlier and having to stop to change the wheel in the pouring rain! I caught an Edinburgh express within 10 minutes and as it glided out of the station I saw my taxi man still struggling with his jack and his wrench. I hope he got it sorted alright.

The express sped smoothly northwards only affording a brief glimpse of Durham’s magnificent cathedral and castle as we raced by. Soon we were crossing the Tyne on one of the 6 famous bridges. We swept round a corner and came to a smooth halt in Newcastle Central station. Ian was waiting for me with a welcome cup of coffee. ( I had texted him of my progress.) Meanwhile ( I heard later) my original train was still stuck at Thornaby. It was delayed for at least an hour. I would have been going spare by then!

The next stage of the journey took us along the beautiful Tyne valley and into Hadrian’s Wall country. A long gentle escarpment led up to the remains of the Roman wall and then dropped steeply away. It’s lovely empty countryside. Northumberland merged into Cumbria as we headed forever westwards. We caught glimpses of hill farms surrounded by grazing sheep. As we neared our destination we passed the shell of an old castle. Quite suddenly, the scenary switched from rural to urban as we were sucked into the suburbs of the City of Carlisle.

Carlisle is a border city. Scotland is not very far away. It has seen much conflict over the centuries. Coming out of the Citadel Station we immediately saw the 16th century round, stone towers ordered by Henry VIII to strengthen the city’s defences. Further in we came across the sturdy, red stoned castle that has witnessed much bloody conflict. Edward 1st had stayed there before going on to “Hammer the Scots.” In an earlier age Carlisle had actually been part of Scotland. It’s the only large English town not to have been recorded in the Domesday Book, ordered by William the Conqueror in the 1080s. It was left to his son, William Rufus to reconquer Carlisle for the English. One might expect that, given this troubled and violent history, its citizens would be tough, hard-bitten and wary of strangers. Of course, we found them to be just the opposite as the border battles and struggles  have now faded into the mists of time. Ian and I entered a nice little cafe near the station to have lunch. No staff were available to greet us but several customers encouraged us to sit down and told us the routine. When I thanked them, a lady commented :” No problem, we’re friendly in Carlisle.”

After our teas and toasties we had a bit of time to explore. Beyond the chain stores and coffees shops there was a very atmospheric and interesting historical quarter. Some streets were cobbled and we passed many old Georgian and early Victorian buildings in striking red sandstone. We strolled along narrow lanes and along a section of old town walls. The medieval cathedral and its close are magnificent. One feature is a spectacular barrel shaped ceiling painted in sky blue with golden stars. We made a note to return for a longer visit when football was not dominating the agenda.

After more helpful directions, we started to walk towards Brunton Park, Carlisle United’s football stadium. This took us up the busy Warwick Road and the leafy avenues that run off it. This is quite unusual as many of the original football grounds are found in more run down areas surrounded by humble terraces. One of the graceful Georgian town houses we passed had a blue plaque. It turned out it was the former home of the mother and grandfather of the American President Woodrow Wilson. He was one of the main architects of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. His mother, Jessie Janet Woodrow Wilson had been born in Carlisle and her father, the Reverend Doctor Thomas Woodrow, originally from Paisley in Scotland, used to preach in a nearby church. Carlisle was only a temporary staging post however, as the family subsequently emigrated to the United States where the future president was born.

Arriving at the football ground we looked at the fields and streets that had been severely flooded by Storm Desmond in December 2015 and January 2016. The nearby river had burst its banks. The pitch went underwater too and for a while, Carlisle Untied had to play their “home” matches in Preston, Blackburn or Blackpool. When the water eventually receded, all the community turned out to clear up the muddy mess in the ground. Even the players mucked in to help. The disaster had brought the team and the fans together in a united effort.

There now ensued a tense 20 minutes or so while we waited for Lesley. I had met Lesley at the Chesterfield box office a fortnight before when I was there for a home match. To my frustration she told me that the tickets for the match at Carlisle had not arrived yet, so could I pop in the following week? Not living in Chesterfield anymore, I said I couldn’t. So Lesley said she would bring my tickets on the team coach on the day and give them to me outside the ground before kick off. This seemed a neat arrangement but inevitably, when we arrived at the away supporters end of Brunton Park, Lesley was nowhere to be seen. We weren’t the only ones waiting and worrying. A small group of Chesterfield supporters who did not actually live in Chesterfield now gathered together. I met one guy who had travelled down from Glasgow. This was the closest he got to a “home” match. Thankfully Lesley at last appeared and we collected our tickets and entered the stadium.

Being in Brunton Park was like going back in time. We showed our tickets to a real person instead of introducing a bar code to a scanner. Inside I was surprised to see that both ends behind the goals didn’t have seating. People stood behind crash barriers just like in the old days. The opposite stand to us only had seats in the top half and the rest was for standing. I thought that since the Hillsborough disaster, all grounds had to be all seaters, but apparently, this rule only applies to clubs in the top two divisions.

Before the match, as we watched the players going through their warm-up routines, a strange thing happened. The Carlisle mascot came out sporting a fox’s head. Now I had always thought that it was Leicester City who were nicknamed “The Foxes”. But now it seems that Carlisle claim that name too. They used to feature a fox on their logo because of the local connection with the legendary huntsman John Peel. In 1976 for instance, the club badge featured a golden fox jumpimg over the abbrieviation CUFC. Later, a fox was shown jumping through a ring of stars. Not any longer is a fox featured though. Now the club badge shows the castle, a shield with the cross of St George and 2 red dragons. Maybe Leicester had threatened to sue them!

I was just digesting all this when the foxy mascot brought out a real stuffed fox mounted on a base and placed it in the centre circle. It stayed there until just before kick off, presumably to bring the team good luck. Football is full of these peculiar traditions and superstitions. I later found that the stuffed fox is called OLGA, which is an anagram of GOAL.

Finally at 3pm, the match kicked off. Chesterfield put in a miserable performance and were lucky only to lose 2-0, although we were very unlucky to have what looked like a good goal, ruled out for a marginal offside. Because this was real life and not on a telly screen, we were unable to watch slow-motion replays to check if the referee’s controversial decision was correct. For a moment we had all gone berserk, in a sudden surge of emotion, but now we returned to stoical acceptance of the inevitable. There was little atmosphere in the rest of the ground. Half of the Carlisle supporters seemed to be asleep. They only woke up when they scored or when there was a disputed throw-in near where they were sitting. There were just under 4000 of them and we numbered 248. We call ourselves the “Spireites” after Chesterfield’s famous and bizarre crooked spire. Even though we lost, I was pleased to be there, enjoying a couple of noisy, raucous hours amongst the Spireite faithful. The away fans nearly always make more noise than the home fans even though heavily outnumbered. Rather than acting like separate individuals they close ranks, feel the warmth of camaraderie and lose many of their inhibitions. A funny moment came when a Carlisle player finally got back on his feet after laying on the turf injured. Some of our number thought he was feigning the injury to waste time and break up the play. One Spireite fan lept up and sarcastically bellowed ” Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! He is healed!” So we lost and we trudged despondently out of the ground and into the darkened streets. I was disappointed with the result but had half expected it. I was still glad that I had made the effort to be one of the valient 248!

Ian and I walked back into the city centre and ate a tasty happy-hour pasta at a jolly Italian ristorante. Then we were back at the station ready for the long journey home. This time we were joined by gangs of Saturday night revellers — young people on their way for a night out in Newcastle. It was noisy but good humoured. At Newcastle, Ian and I parted company and I went on to catch 2 more trains, travelling south and then east. Some young lads I talked to had been drinking in Newcastle and then in Durham city. They were now on their way to Darlington for yet more drinking before getting taxis home to Bishop Auckland. They couldn’t believe it when I told them I had gone all the way from Saltburn to Carlisle and back to see a football match and had  not touched a drop of drink! I think they thought I was mad. It was the last interesting encounter on my long away day. Some may think of it as masochistic, others may think I was insane. Maybe they have a point, but there’s no getting away from the fact that I really enjoyed  it! It would have been even better if the Spireites had won but one cannot have everything!

 

 

It’s Only a Game — Or Is It?

15 Feb

I’ve been feeling slightly sick inside for a couple of days now. No-one close to me has died. The house has not collapsed. I have not had my income cut-off. I am not really ill with a sickness bug.( I had that over Christmas)  So what is the problem? I know you will laugh when I tell you. You will probably advise me to “get a grip” and “grow up.” The cause of my malaise is a football match played about 130 miles away from my home, in the lowest tier of the English professional leagues. I wasn’t even at the match. Yet when I saw the result flash up on the screen, it hit me like a punch in the stomach! Even 2 days later, now that I have had time to pull myself together, I am still wandering around in a semi-daze.

 

You see, I am not ill in the conventional sense, but I do suffer from a terrible, life-long debilitating disease. I am Stuart Bates and I am a Chesterfield FC supporter! It’s an affliction which I know I will never get rid of. It all started when I was born. Yes, you’ve guessed it — I was born in Chesterfield. It’s a little known Derbyshire industrial town in the East Midlands. It has seen better days and it’s traditional industries such as coal mining, engineering and steel making, have all declined. It now lives in constant fear of being swallowed up by its giant neighbour to the north, the city of Sheffield. Chesterfield’s most famous claim to fame is that it’s parish church has an alarmingly crooked and twisted spire. Unseasoned timbers caused the spire to warp and twist back in the 13th century. Ironically, that big mistake by those medieval builders has given an other-wise non-descript town, a unique and special identity. It is the Pisa of north-east Derbyshire, although lacking the Tuscan sunshine, it doesn’t attract quite so many tourists.

So I was born in Chesterfield, spent my childhood there and as I became a teenager, I started to support the town’s  football team. Chesterfield FC are the 4th oldest club in the whole English football league. They have never risen out of the lower divisions. I think they nearly got promoted to the old Division 1 sometime in the 1930’s, but lost out on goal difference. So near, yet so far! They have never reached those dizzying heights since. Commemorating the town’s most famous landmark, the team is nicknamed “The Spireites.”

Supporting the Spireites has always given me a sense of belonging. I left the town of the crooked spire to go to college in Manchester when I was nearly 19, and have lived in various different towns and cities since. But I have always had that strong feeling that my roots are in Chesterfield. When I visit the town I always feel that I have come home. The feeling begins as soon as I spy the crooked spire on the horizon or as soon as a bus driver or shop assistant calls me “duck”, the local Derbyshire term of endearment. I have lived much of my adult life in the land of “Bonnie Lad” and “Pet” but, silly as this sounds, I always experience a strong surge of pleasure when I hear the word “Duck.” The Derbyshire/ Nottinghamshire/ South Yorkshire accent is not the most beautiful in the land, but because I was immersed in it as a child, it is music to my ears.

Just as I identify with the town, I identify, but in a more concentrated and powerful form, with its football team. In the ground on a Saturday afternoon, anything from 4000 to 8000 Spireites are gathered together, united by a common love and a common cause. The numbers are no- where near those who go to watch the top Premier Division teams, but it is still a potent feeling to be amongst so many like- minded people. Spireites come in all ages from young children to so called senior citizens. They include men and women, though the former still predominate. At matches I have seen babes in arms, parents and children, young, raucous men, people in wheel chairs, blind and partially sighted, genteel couples and moaning old “codgers” giving the linesman some stick. In other words one can see a large cross section of the humanity at a Chesterfield match. I have encountered Spireites from Belgium, Spain and even Japan as well as from all over UK. I even met one at British passport control in Calais, who when he had studied my documents, exclaimed “Up the Spireites!” What unites us all is support for the team and identification with the town in some shape or form. I described it as an illness above, but a more accurate word is “addiction.”

“Addiction” sounds quite alarming, as it can be of course. I have already admitted that it has made me feel a bit ill. But don’t worry, I have it under control. ( I think!) For me, being a footballer supporter is like having an alternative, vicarious life. This is particularly so when one identifies strongly with one particular team. The situation will only get serious, in my opinion, if this alternative existance starts spilling over and swamping real life. The bad result last Tuesday made me ill- at- ease and out of sorts. I had to deal with disappointment, shock, and anxiety. Chesterfield are having a terrible season and are in grave danger of being relegated out of the football league altogether. Some of my fellow Spireites use exaggerated language such as : “disastrous”, “gut-wrenching”, and feeling “gutted.” I have said such things too, while in the grip of strong, negative emotions. One of my friends described the threat of relegation as staring into “the abyss.” That’s how many people would view death — the end of existance. Even for a big football fan like myself and ardent Spireite, I admit that that is a bit over the top. The despair of a defeat or the elation of victory are the causes of such colourful language. But, hopefully, these heightened emotions are only temporary and after a calming down period, lives, even Spireite lives, inevitably return to normal.

Being part of something is a powerful feeling. It’s great not to feel alone. I remember feeling wonderful when I marched in a massive torchlight procession for CND in the 1980’s. We were all united in our wish for World peace and for the banning of weapons of mass destruction. That same feeling of togetherness is evoked by headteachers when they tell pupils to be proud of their uniforms and of their role as representatives of the school. Belonging to a team, an institution, a movement or a political party can stir up great pride and satisfaction. It’s just the same with football. I’m not talking about the fake “glory hunters” who pretend to support whichever team is top of the league. Look how many Leicester City “supporters” suddenly and miraculously emerged a couple of years go when the Foxes were Premier League champions. Where are they all now? I’m talking about a deep-rooted and long-lasting support of a club and team. My support for Chesterfield was somehow born inside me. My dad passed it on to me and he got it from my granddad. I have been to many matches with my cousin  and my uncle.( sadly now passed away.) It’s both a joy and an affliction. It’s part of our lives.

Life itself is all about ups and downs. For every high there seems to be a low. Sport, including football, copies life. At the moment I am worried and depressed because my team is not doing very well. Two weeks ago I was worried and depressed because we had a burst pipe under the kitchen floor. Both situations made me feel stressed and temporarily out of control. One was much more trivial tha the other of course. That is the important point I think. My football supporting life must not be allowed to dominate and ruin my real life. Following Chesterfield FC is, or should be, like living in a parallel universe. It’s am alternative world to escape to every now and then. So, since the defeat I’ve lectured myself with phrases such as: “it’s only a game”, “it’s not the end of the world”, and “get a sense of perspective.” Also in the world of football there is the old adage: “there’s always the next game” Thus I have grounded myself in reality and then returned to my Spireite fantasies with a renewed feeling of hope. At the moment, hope is concentrated on an away match at Carlisle on Saturday.

For some insane reason I will endure about 8 hours of train travel to get there and back. Many would see that as a waste of a day — all to watch a poor, struggling football team in a far away corner of England. But I will travel in hope, revel in the gathering of hundreds of Spireites and will enter upon an emotional, 90 minute roller coaster. Whether I (we) emerge happy and elated, or crest-fallen and in despair, depends entirely on whether our 11 men beat their 11 men in a “silly” game of kicking a ball round a field. Hopefully my vicarious sickness will not have taken a turn for the worse by Saturday evening!

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.