Sunday, June 18, 2006

Norman Whiteside for Manchester United (v Everton), 18 May 1985

Well, it's finally here. I am delighted to begin our brand new fortnightly series with the personal thoughts of long-suffering football fans as we plough through the alphabet in our A-Z of Football.

Thanks to everyone for their contributions, and I hope we can pick others up along the way. Without further ado, here's some conjecture on two Scotsman, two pundits, a Chilean, a centre half, three strikers and a pair of buttocks. That's what this great game is all about.

A is for......

...... Alex Ferguson – Lord B

Well, there wasn’t really anywhere else I could start, was there? Since his arrival in 1986, and his near departure in 1990, Sir Alex has become one of the most successful managers in British footballing history, and in terms of trophies, United’s all time most successful.

Most people dislike Ferguson whilst grudgingly accepting his success, and I fall largely into that category. The one thing that separates Fergie from your average punter, however, is his ability to make odd/difficult decisions that the more mortals amongst us find perplexing, but that ultimately turn out for the best.

Look at the transfer record. He has shipped out any number of players supposedly in the prime of their careers and in virtually every instance this decision has been vindicated. Ince. Hughes. Kanchelskis. Butt. Sharpe. Even Keane’s departure saw a newly unshackled United go on a fantastic run of results. The exception that proves this rule is the unexpected sale of Jaap Stam although the future of Ruud van Nistelrooy should provide an interesting topic of conjecture also.

Whilst in charge if United he has guided them to one European Cup, a European Cup Winners Cup, 8 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cups, 2 League Cups, an Intercontinental Cup, a European Super Cup and 5 Charity Shields.

Irreplaceable? No. Perfect? Not nearly. An impossible person to follow into the job? Almost certainly.

........ Clarence Acuna - Ben

Though not the finest player we’ve ever had at St James’ Park, Chilean midfielder Clarence Acuna was at least a real 110%er – more than could be said for most of our foreign imports, and many of the homegrown players too. He arrived in October 2000, established himself in the first team and scored some handy goals. Three years later, having fallen out of favour, he was allowed to leave, apparently so he could look after his sick mother.

But it’s not for his abilities as a footballer or a nurse that he’s remembered. It isn’t even for his name, which conjures up visions of him as a pipe-smoking moustachioed lothario from the 1930s: “Me? Clarence Acuna? In a lady’s boudoir? With my reputation?”

No, what springs to mind when his name is mentioned – and what makes that last vision impossible to sustain – is his phenomenal ugliness. It’s hard to pinpoint quite what it is about him that’s wrong, but his facial features are squashed together so that he seems to have a head as squat as his 5’7” stature. It’s no surprise that when you put his name into Google, the first page listed is on the Ugly Footballers site.

At least the Big Man Upstairs blessed him with footballing talent to compensate, though, eh? Just like Ronaldo, Gianfranco Zola, Nwankwo Kanu, er, Francis Jeffers, Phil Neville, Luke Chadwick… But then there are great players whose faces aren’t so upsettingly unpleasant – so does that mean Clarence sits at home bemoaning his luck and sticking pins into dolls of David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Jamie Redknapp?

.....Added Time – Paul

We all know the score. You're at Old Trafford, clinging on to a 2-1 lead as the clock ticks down and as the ninety minutes expires, up steps the forth official and holds up the board to signal the amount of injury time to be played. The whole ground holds it's breath (except Fergie, who keeps cheing his gum because he already knows what's coming):

20 minutes.

Surely some mistake? Then the fourth official holds up another board which says: "Unless Man Utd score, in which case we can go for a cup of tea"

I realise I'm over exaggerating slightly, but you can guarantee that if your team are doing the business against Man Utd then Fergie will have intimidated the referee to allow his team every possible opportunity to get a goal, and if that means playing on and on into the night, so be it.

...........Tony Adams – Swiss Toni

It used to be true that you knew exactly where you stood with Tony Adams: he was the talented but no-nonsense stopper who captained a boring but successful Arsenal side and sometimes played for England. He was ugly and ungainly. He was a donkey. You knew where you stood with Tony Adams.

And then it all changed.

It all started when he admitted that he was an alcoholic. Before I knew what was happening, Tony Adams had stopped drinking and had turned into some kind of poetry-reading, piano playing Renaissance man. Worse still: the archetypal English stopper had been replaced by some sort of free-spirited libero. I was horrified to see a rejuvenated Adams serenely sailing across the halfway line with hair flowing and the ball at his feet. He would glide into the penalty area and would calmly place the ball beyond the mesmerised goalkeeper.

It was a remarkable transformation, but it was also a terrible betrayal of our history and our heritage. I thought we lived in a world of simple truths, a world where centre-halves knew their place: to kick strikers into the air and the ball into row Z. If I could no longer hold onto those simple truths, then I didn’t know what the hell to believe.

I don’t suppose he’ll be opening a pub anytime soon either.

..........Ron Atkinson - Mike

Bejewelled, huge-headed and orange-skinned, Big Ron was a class act. He was one of the game’s last real characters. He was the kind of man we would all want to be if we were a football manager-turned-pundit…

Until…

Until Big Ron made a racist comment about Marcel Desailly which was broadcast when he thought his mic was switched off.

I read an interview with him about 6 months later. Although still remorseful, sadly, he also tried to excuse himself. He suggested that when he had said “some schools would call Desailly a lazy fucking nigger”, the “some schools” bit referred to a particular person who he had worked with in the past. It wasn’t his racism, he argued, it was this other chap’s. In the article, Ron also wondered why it’s ok for gangsta rappers to use the word “nigger” when he can’t.

Oh dear.

This incident was a shock and a matter of great disappointment for me. I had loved Atkinson’s co-commentary. His “Big-Ronisms” were legendary and I used to discuss them with my students in my A Level English Language class. Whether he invented them or not, he certainly brought many new expressions to the public consciousness. I particularly enjoyed “he’s given that the eyebrows” to describe a flick-on and “Scholes has gone for the Hollywood ball” to describe an over-ambitious pass. According to my projections, if he’d carried on co-commentating for another ten years, he would have become the most prolific wordsmith since Shakespeare. Indeed, like Shakespeare, he even turned verbs into nouns, as in “that’s a great arrive at the far post” (although the “far post” was always the “second stick” to Ron). Ron was quick to pick up on poor ball control, too, once claiming that a player (can’t remember who, but it was probably Heskey) could “trap the ball further than I go on holiday.”

My feelings about him are mixed. In many ways, Ron Atkinson represents my feelings about the game in general: happy memories combined with disappointment, disgust and the feeling that I’ve been cheated and let down.

.......Andy Gray - Paul A

I consider myself to be a fan of football rather than a football fan. There is perhaps a subtle difference between the two. For example I would generally rather watch my team (West Ham) loose a great game than see them grind out a lucky and undeserved victory (a view that I held right up to Steven Gerrard's last minute goal in the Cup!). As a sometimes casual observer of the game, there are many things which
guarantee to ruin my enjoyment of a match and the one that comes top of the list is usually preceded by Richard Keys saying "so its over to our commentary team of Martin Tyler and ANDY GRAY".

I don't know how tough it can be to make a living as a "summariser" but given the generally appalling standards across the board, I assume it must be something of an intellectual challenge. Over the last decade, Andy Gray has raised the bar of commentary gibberish to a level that looked unsurpassable until the recent arrival on the scene of Graeme "he must be blackmailing the BBC'c head of Sport" Le Saux. Even the best efforts of Chris Kamara, David Pleat, Trevor Francis and Ian Wright have been unable to wrest the crown from Andy's head. In the interests of fairness, it has to be said however, that if anyone were ever stupid enough to allow Ian Wright anything more than his current 3 moronic comments per broadcast, Andy could find himself as yesterday's man!

I can only believe that Sky pay Andy by the word (with a premium for filling their "Scottish" quota) but have not included in his contract that repeating the same word or phrase over and over does not count. Andy does at least let his long suffering public have advance warning of impending "wisdom" by prefacing with "you don't need me to tell you......" before going in excruciating detail through whatever it was we didn't need to have pointed out to us. I don't know the details of
Andy's education but if degrees were offered in hindsight or the bloody obvious, never would a double first have been so rightfully awarded.

With all the technology at Sky's fingertips, can they please allow us the "Real" Fanzone which offers the same commentary but with dear old Andy blissfully muted and the old maxim of "less is more" well and truly fulfilled!

Searching on the web for Andy Gray related articles, i came across a biog on the "Celebrity Speakers" site. Whilst i could go through and list all of the supposed "strengths" that Mr. Gray brings as an after-dinner speaker i will content myself with this. Under the "Language" section, we are told that "He presents in English"...you could have fooled me.

.......arse - Sarah

Or more to the point, Souleymane Oulare's arse!

Who? You may well say...

Stoke City had been wallowing in the 2nd Division (now 1st Division, previously 3rd Division) since they moved into their new stadium in 1998. In a bid to avoid the continuing rot an ex Belgian footballer of the year, striker Souleymane Oulare, was brought in during the 2002 January transfer window. Alas, within days of his arrival and before he'd had a chance to feature in a first team game, he was rushed to hospital with what turned out to be a blood clot in his lungs. He was out for the whole season.

In his absence, Stoke somehow managed to improve sufficiently to find themselves in a playoff semi final against arch rivals Cardiff, where they found themselves entering the second leg at Ninian Park 2-1 down (agg). The recently recovered Oulare was brought on as a super sub and a 90th minute strike from Stoke forced the game into extra time – 5 minutes after the Cardiff PA had asked the celebrating Bluebirds to stay off the pitch for the home side’s lap of honour (snigger).

In the 115th minute Stoke were awarded a free kick on the edge of the penalty area, which was taken by Super James O’Connor. The Cardiff goalie read exactly where the ball was headed and was in place to easily stop the shot. Fortunately for Stoke, their Guinean striker also happened to be in place and, as the ball rounded the Cardiff wall, it fortuitously headed directly to his arse and was deflected into the net to provide the winning goal.

Stoke went on to easily win the final two weeks later and clambered back to the 1st Division (now Championship, previously 2nd Division), where they’ve been wallowing ever since. Oulare never played for Stoke again, but his backside has remained a club legend.

.................................................................

Thanks to Mike, Swiss Toni, Sarah, Paul, Ben and Paul A for their contributions. More in two weeks....

4 comments:

weenie said...

Nice - keep 'em coming!

Ben said...

ST: You're right - Tony Adams's "rebirth" was very strange indeed.

Mike: "According to my projections, if he’d carried on co-commentating for another ten years, he would have become the most prolific wordsmith since Shakespeare" - very true. Much more entertaining than the current crop of idiots (Andy Gray included).

Lord Bargain said...

I heard the dulcet Big Ron tones somewhere recently, but I cant remember where. I think UK Gold (bizarrely) are covering the World Cup also - he might be their co-commentator. It was kinda nice to hear him again, actually.

I'm not sure "unless Man Utd score in which case we can go for a cup of tea" fits on those electronic boards, does it? And anyway, it's Budweiser at the Glazerdome these days, not cups of tea. And it's not "added time", it's "overtime"....

Mike said...

LB - I think he made a bit of a mistake letting Beckham go, even thought Ronaldo was a fine replacement. As you say, though, you have to admire his decision-making skills.

Ben - Acuna = squashed dwarf.

Paul - Do you remember that time in a game against Villa, I think it was, when Fergie stormed out of a press conference? He'd said that there should've been 14 minutes of added time and the press laughed. Fergie didn't like that very much...

ST - It's interesting that Adams managed to avoid the kind of abuse Graham Le Saux got for reading the Guardian. I think he still had the old-fashioned centre-back in him somewhere.

Paul A - I quite like Andy Gray, which doesn't necessarily mean he's any good. When a player was sent off in a game a couple of seasons ago, he said "I hate to see players needlessly tugged off before half time." Neither he nor Tyler could speak for the next couple of minutes, and you could hear the faint sound of schoolboy giggling.

Sarah - never heard of him, but it's a great football story of triumph over adv"arse"ity.

Sorry.