With the start of the English season just around the corner, I thought it an opportune moment to continue our journey through the lexicon of football with the latest instalment in the always excellent series...
The A-Z of Football
I is for Infiltration (Paul)
I've only done this a couple of times, but like I suspect a lot of fans who have lived away from their team's ground, I've attended games in the "wrong" part of the ground.
As a Newcastle fan, getting tickets to away games can sometimes prove tricky, and so, on two occasions, I've been forced to go undercover in order to watch my team play in the flesh.
Given my age, it's perhaps inevitable that my two instances of infiltration have come following the advent of all-seater stadia and as such the relative loss of atmosphere which follows left me feeling slightly safer than I might have been in days of terraces. As an indication that such deception was possible, I was once accompanied on to the Gallowgate terrace, in Newcastle's first season in the premiership by my Manchester United supporting cousin. As Man Utd took the lead in front of us his arms went up in celebration, only for the realisation that should he express his jubilation, an entire stand of disgruntled Geordies would be expressing their displeasure through the medium of punching (myself included - survival of the fittest and all that), so he quickly turned his cheer into a groan and clutched his head in mock anguish. Happily for me, Newcastle equalised though an Andy Cole header, and with honours even family harmony (and my cousin's skull) remained intact.
Obviously, this experience showed me that it was possible to stand amongst the enemy and survive. So, several years later as a student I took the opportunity to visit the cultural haven that is Coventry and their delightful Highfield Road ground. I've never been to a stadium with a worse atmosphere (and I've been to Highbury several times). The only chant which the Coventry fans mustered all afternoon was printed in the programme.
The game itself was typical Newcastle. Behind after Dion Dublin had cunningly hidden behind Shay Given, only to nip round and roll the ball into the net once the Irishman through it down to kick it forward, Newcastle had fought back only to go behind again, setting the stage for Robert Lee to hammer a thirty yard equaliser with minutes to go. Surprising my natural desire to leap up and punch the air I sat, head in hands, grinning like a Cheshire cat. However, such was the apathy of the home fans that several other clandestine Geordies had no such compunction about hiding their true colours - and seemed to suffer no ill affects either.
Encouraged by this, I arranged for a group of friends to attend a match between Newcastle and Leicester at Filbert Street a couple of years later. Unfortunately we only managed to get three away tickets between seven of us. So I phoned up the Leicester ticket office, and employing my complete lack of a Geordie accent to great effect secured four seats in the home end. Anticipating a similarly dowdy atmosphere to the Coventry game, off we headed to the game.
Suffice to say that the Leicester atmosphere was slightly more partisan than their west midlands counterparts, and for the good of our health the four of us followed the example set by my cousin and became vocal Leicester fans, although typically for Newcastle we were forced to celebrate a Leicester goal before hiding our relief as Newcastle equalised, before making our way back to the car avoiding the punch up which occurred outside the ground illustrating the fate which might have befallen us had we not been sufficiently adept at suppressing our allegiance.
I is for...Intelligence (El Tel)
Ok, just run with me for a little while here. my point is to suggest that football - at many levels - is regularly a platform for the kind of sublime, artful and socially outrageous intelligence that one tends to associate with the work of Nobel prize-winning scientists. Indeed, my aim is to draw a
parallel between, say, Stephen Hawking and Wayne Rooney.
In recent times, one textbook theory of intelligence - that of 'Multiple Intelligences' (Gardner, 1983) - has come to be associated with a whole mish-mash of skills and abilities that in years gone by would not have registered as evidence of 'intelligence'. In particular, there is 'bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence' - associated with learning and understanding through physical activity. Often, dance will be held up as a good example of this - after all, dance is not of such a low cultural order as something like football - much easier and more desirable to hold up a
Darcy Bussell than a Wayne Rooney. Also, we might refer to 'visuo-spatial intelligence' - associated with understanding the relationships between objects. In this case, a common example is the individual who can speedily complete a very large jigsaw puzzle - a much more accessible image than the manager who can render impotent an opposition's attacking formation that features dangerous flare players on each wing. All of which is well and good, but still, a bit dry.
Now, imagine - as I experienced as a youngster - being captivated by Peter Beardsley seeing shooting opportunities and unlikely dribbles that no-one else could see, or as a youngish adult, marvelling at defence-splitting passes from the twilight career of Nigel Clough. All of which is still a bit high profile. However, the same shots, passes and defensive equivalents, I recall as clearly from street football, schools football and informal 5-a-side knockabouts. Whilst oafish lumps would lazily interpret many of these abilities and moments as being down to 'ball-skills', there is
rarely the acknowledgement that some of these abilities say not so much of the feet, but about the eyes and the mind - seeing, suggesting and processing possibilities and impossibilities with lightning dexterity - and often not recognising this of themselves.
The stereotype of the thick footballer has rarely made sense to me, and why - because it is when the footballer is being a footballer that he is at his least thick. It's when the player leaves the pitch that it all goes pear-shaped, tits-up or Craig Bellamy. No, as culturally distasteful as it
might seem, in the language of football. I is for Intelligence.
I is for....Injury time - (Skif)
You might think the phrase “what’s that for,” used repeatedly, is confined to childhood, when you would both provoke adoration and irritation in your parents by pointing at buttons, buses, sheep and feathers, then rolling out your well-practiced method of interrogation.
In adulthood, no one really likes to use the phrase as it suggests a lack of understanding, a slowness to grasp facts or even as far as rank, Goody-esque, stupidity. Except in one kind of place. At one particular time. Football ground. 90th minute. Throughout the land - “what’s that for?” though not said now with innocence, but incredulity.
All it takes is some mush on a touchline to hold up a big number ‘4’ to create howls of derision. Usually though from one end only, it’s quite the Dada-ist supporter that whistles intensely when his team are chasing a 2-1 deficit in the 92nd minute. However, on the other side of it, whether you’re holding on or seemingly cruising, anything over 2 will always cause the ol’ sphincter (where every supporter packs their inherent pessimism) to jiggle. Perhaps supporters would be less annoyed with the display if they took the Las Vegas boxing approach to number display. “6 minutes?!?! For fu… oh…well…heeeelllllo my pretty. No, I think that’s just about right.” For as we know all British football supporters have the mating instinct of a rakish toff.
Maybe not, but I’m sure most of that constituency wouldn’t exactly balk at the idea of bringing in intellectually unambitious girlies to wield the boards. Either that or force Tony Bloggs of, oh I don’t know, Deal, to pack a blonde wig in with the spare flags and his pencil sharpener. Over distance we’d never know. Mmm, think there might be some balking at that.
Of course, this is only the case in the games where a fourth official has been appointed. Tends to be down amongst us non-leaguers that we only get to see them in the FA competitions, although sometimes we might get a groundsman to raise up a token ‘1’ painted onto the side of a bin. Actually that’s not true (and shame on you if you considered it a possibility) but I have seen club manager’s hold up the appropriate number sub board on instruction from the ref, although this in itself is clear tokenism. We can manage most of the season, and even the big leagues never used to bother.
Isn’t there something to be said for the guessing game, when you have no idea how long the man in black will let your agony last? Yes, it hurts, but pain has to be intense, for pleasure to follow suit. If you know it’s three minutes, you will gradually dissolve towards calmness. However, with no idea, you relief will erupt in one pure, if soggy, ejaculation (soggy thanks to the involuntary grolly that flies out of your face with your “YEEEAAAAAHHHHHHHH”, of course). So, let this be my call, to bring back the days of injury time that is the refs to know and ours not-to-find-out-until-it’s-finished. Ignorance, as you’ll remember, is bliss. Well, eventually, after 2/3/4 minutes of ignorance being a bit more like a cheese grater against your weather-beaten nips.
Some people, fearing entrenchment in the car park probably, bypass all this by leaving after 85 minutes. I remember once, in my days of watching Southampton, I was at a game at the Dell (1st April 1989, I fool you not) and Saints hadn’t won in 20 games and were dicing with relegation. At home to a similarly troubled Newcastle, it was 0-0 until the dying moments when Saints were awarded a penalty. For reasons lost in the mists of time, and the demolition of that beautiful little ground, Mr Reliability (from the spot, anyway) Matthew Le Tissier was not on the field, and Neil Ruddock stepped up. He was fairly lithe in them days, but still, his placing of the ball on the spot didn’t exactly calm the nerves. Just as Razor started his run up, some arse started edging his way down our row to leave. He just cleared me in the last seat prior to the gangway as Razor welted it past the keeper, in doing so setting in motion Southampton’ pull to safety, and Newcastle’s drop into the second tier. It was the season that ended with Michael Thomas almost charged into the Anfield Road end after scoring a last minute second goal for Arsenal.
It was also almost a season when some guy committed only to the cause of being home in time for Little & Large, and not a 1,800 minute wait for 3 points, went barrelling down some steps in the West Stand at the Dingly. At my hands. He didn’t, despite the fact that I was only 11, and thus wasn’t totally sure of right or wrong then.
Now an adult, I realise it would certainly have been the responsible thing to do.
I is for…..Italy 1990 (Lord Bargain)
As we galloped towards the letter “I”, in my brain, and as a Manchester United fan I was (of course) inextricably drawn to writing about “injury time”. Has there been a more longstanding joke during the course of the Premiership than the notion that referees add enough time for United to score? Or how, of course, our most famous triumph occurred after the ninetieth minute…
But, as a result of being tardy with my piece I was beaten to that topic by the mighty Skif. A fair cop, guv’nor.
I remember running into the street at the outcome of a football match twice in my life. The first was into a quiet Portishead close after Norman Whiteside’s curling effort had won the 1985 FA Cup. The second was on a balmy July night in the summer of 1990.
Although I vaguely remember some of the 1986 tournament in Mexico (Gary Lineker’s bandaged wrist being raised after his hat-trick against Poland), the first World Cup that I remember with any conviction is the 1990 tournament in Italy. From the opening day as Francois Omam Biyick’s header squirmed under the body of Andres Pumpido in the Argentinian goal, the tournament is the one I have the best recollection of.
England’s preparation for the tournament was mixed. After a considerable unbeaten run, an Enzo Francescoli inspired Uruguay side beat Bobby Robson’s England 2-1 at Wembley in May. Then, the last pre-tournament warm-up game was an unmitigated catastrophe as a Steve Bull goal scraped a 1-1 draw against Tunisia.
By the time England lined up against the Republic of Ireland in Cagliari in June 11th, there had already been some great moments. We’d seen the emergence of Salvatore Schillachi and Tomas Skuhravy. We’d seen two great Lothar Matthaus goals against Yugoslavia. Earlier that day we’d seen the upset of the tournament so far as the minnows of Costa Rica beat Scotland 1-0.
England’s game, by contrast, was a pretty tepid affair. An early Gary Lineker goal failed to ignite England and Kevin Sheedy fired Ireland level half way through the second half. In the other group game a late Egypt equaliser denied the Dutch an opening day win.
A goalless draw with Holland failed to inspire the England faithful and Bobby Robson’s team went into the last game with Egypt needing something from the game. An inspired/lucky change of formation (fielding Mark Wright in a sweeper role) galvanised England and Wright’s goal was the deciding moment in a 1-0 win over Egypt. England were through.
In the round of 16, England were to face Belgium who had finished second in their group ahead of South Korea and precious winners Uruguay. The game itself was tight and Enzo Scifo came nearest to a winner in normal time with a fierce 30 yard drive that came back off Peter Shilton’s right hand post. The match was trickling towards the dreaded penalty shootout when England won a free kick forty yards from goal. Paul Gascoigne walked over to the ball and, bereft of other ideas shaped to shoot. John Barnes urged otherwise and told Gazza to loft the ball into the danger area. As the ball looped into the penalty area, substitute David Platt let the ball drop over his right shoulder and hooked the ball past the despairing dive of Michael Preud’homme for a 119th minute winner and resulted in Bobby Robson’s memorable touchline dance.
The last 16 round produced some other memorable moments, including Roger Milla’s brace for Cameroon against Columbia, the notorious Frank Rijkaard/Rudi Voller spitting incident and Ireland’s great penalty shootout victory against the Romanians.
So then to Naples for a World Cup quarter final for the rights to meet West Germany who had defeated Czechoslovakia 1-0 earlier in the day. England controlled the first half and deservedly went in 1-0 up at half time courtesy of a David Platt header. Then, a four minute Cameroon double turned the game on its head as firstly an Emmanuel Kunde penalty and a Eugene Ekeke strike put the Africans into a 2-1 lead.
With time running out, England were awarded an 83rd minute penalty which Gary Lineker coolly converted. As the first half of extra time was drawing to a close, Lineker was played through and fouled by a combination of defender and goalkeeper. The number 10 got up and dispatched the penalty and England held on for a 3-2 victory.
I ran into the street. Well. We were in the semi-finals of the World Cup….
Of course the semi-final is best left alone, I guess. England play well, Paul Parker’s deflection loops over an ageing Peter Shilton, Chris Waddle hits the inside of a post, Psycho’s penalty hits Bodo Illgner’s legs and Waddle’s spot-kick can still be seen heading out of our solar system.
And as for the final… Well.
So, great tournament it was not, but it’s the nearest we have come (and may I suggest will come) to winning that little gold trophy in my lifetime and the goals and personalities of that tournament remain the most iconic. And the USA were rubbish....
I is for…. International Management (Swiss Toni)
International management? Hardest game in the world.
Now, clearly I’m not talking about your Sven Goran Erikssons, your Graham Taylors or your Steve McClarens. They have a pretty difficult job, I agree, but it is one of the highest profile and prestigious jobs in the world, they do all seem to have a liking for the spotlight and were all pretty reasonably recompensed for their troubles, so I’m sure not sure that anyone should feel all that sorry for them.
No, I’m talking about real international football management. The kind where you slave away for hours and hours for no tangible reward. The kind where you spend all hours fretting over lists of players and staying up late into the night poring over tactics and permutations of different formations. The kind where even if you win everything that there is to win, there is precious little reward and absolutely no recognition.
Well, when I say “real international football management”, I actually mean nothing of the sort; I mean virtual international football management, the kind that you play on a computer.
I’ve been playing “Championship Manager” and “Football Manager” in their various incarnations for more than a decade now, and although I have been phenomenally successful (except when managing Wolves), becoming an international manager is still the holy of holies.
In all those years, I have only really ever tasted real success at international level once. Under their inspirational young manager, Swiss Antonio, Roma had won everything European football could offer over and over again. When the Italian FA came calling, who was I to refuse? The national team was in a parlous state and qualification for the next European Championships was looking doubtful. Enter the new manager, and enter too a new crop of players… joining established but underachieving internationals like Francesco Totti, Antonio Cassano and Fabio Cannavaro were Italian-Brazilian Robson Ponte and Italian-Argentinian Julio Arca. The team were encouraged to play a more attacking game with quicker, slicker short passing… and the results soon followed. Qualification for the finals of the European Championships was achieved, and the tournament was then thrillingly won, in spite of a long-term injury to Totti. The world cup campaign that followed saw more of the same, and the Antonio’s team marched on to the final, where they took on the might of Brazil and were only narrowly beaten (which frankly was my best result after several reboots… damn but they were a good team. I don’t like to cheat, but this was ridiculous). This disappointment was soon worked off when the team came back to Europe, where they extended their tenure as European Champions for another 4 years (without cheating), during the course of which Ponte overhauled Christian Vieri as his country’s top scorer, all the while playing in an attacking-midfield role.
The Italian FA were naturally delighted, and Swiss Antonio was something of a legend throughout Italy… but the game had begun to pall for the young manager and he disappeared (well, he upgraded his computer and had to start all over again). But damn, in those few short years, Swiss Antonio had achieved a whole lot more than Steve McClaren ever will, and for a whole lot less money too.
Actually, my favourite ever Championship Manager moment came when I was the manager of Barnet and had, over the course of a number of years, taken them all the way up to the top division. Spearheading this advance had been a striker I had signed when the team had been playing in the old Fourth Division called Paul Brazier. He cost me buttons, but scored at least 20 goals every season through all of those promotions, and finally, at the age of 33 received his first England call-up. I was properly choked up and as proud as proud could be. A computer manager had just called up one of my virtual players to a simulated international team, and I was dancing around the room. Wolves hardly ever have that effect on me in the real world.
Have you read the papers recently? Sheffield Utd are taking the Premier League to the High Court to try and reverse their relegation; West Ham have been splashing the cash and having already signed Craig Bellamy, are apparently keen to sign Kieron Dyer; Manchester Utd have been trying (and trying) to sign Carlos Tevez, only to find out that there is a lot of dispute over who really owns his registration; the new owner of Manchester City is a former Thai prime minister being investigated for human rights abuses and whose first move is to appoint Sven Goran Eriksson as manager. You couldn’t make some of this stuff up.
Computer football is just so much more realistic.
I is for....intelligence (Ben)
Last time out, my subject was Alan Hansen, whom I lauded as a giant of punditry largely (it has to be said) by virtue of the diminutive stature of his competition. If you had to put your finger on what it is that makes so many of Hansen’s fellow pundits so excruciating to listen to, you’d ultimately have to say it’s because footballers are by their very nature, well, a bit thick.
Ex-pros – so the thinking goes – make for good pundits because they know football from the inside, and thereby complement commentators and presenters whose experience of the beautiful game comes only from looking on from the sidelines. Pundits can help you understand the tactics, the mind games, the physical exertion, the levels of skill, what it means to win or lose.
The problem is, of course, that most footballers lack the ability to string a simple sentence together, which negates the value and usefulness of any insight they might be able to contribute. How expressive you can be with your feet bears absolutely no relation to how expressive you can be with your tongue.
It would be wrong, admittedly, to tar all footballers with the same brush. After all, Barry Horne and David Weatherall both have Chemistry degrees; former Watford defender Steve Palmer has an MSc in Computing; Arjan de Zeeuw, who has a degree in Medical Science, was recently signed up by a fellow graduate, Coventry manager Iain Dowie. Our very own Steve Harper has a degree from the Open University; with Shay Given blocking his path to the first team, he at least found something constructive to do with his time. And Eric Cantona is a lover of the arts, and a philosopher well-respected enough for his views on good and evil to be considered alongside those of Thomas Aquinas.
However, these are pretty much the exceptions who prove the rule. Cantona’s intelligence was one of the things that marked him out as different, special. And for every football-playing graduate comfortable with polysyllabic words, there are twenty slackjawed Wayne Rooneys erming their way through interviews, their brows furrowing as they dribble their way through sentences like they’re dribbling through a tightly-packed defence.
But, lest we forget, footballers are paid exorbitant amounts not to be articulate but to play football and win matches, hopefully entertaining the paying spectators in the process. To paraphrase that reliable voice of reason Paul Calf, why does everyone say David Beckham’s a brilliant footballer but a bit stupid? After all, no-one says, “That Stephen Hawking – he’s a bit shit at football. Stuck him on the wing and he did nowt for 90 minutes.”
So it’s unfair to mock players for not being the brightest stars in God’s sky. Generally, they don’t choose to inflict their thoughts on us; rather, they are pursued, pressured and prompted into speech, expected to perform with microphones constantly thrust under their noses. Even those hopelessly inarticulate players who go on to a career in punditry only do so because the opportunity is there, offered to them on a plate by a media hungry to get closer to the action and desperate to fill up allotted time slots and sports pages with supposedly authoritative voices. Yes, BBC and ITV, you read that right – I’m blaming YOU for Ian Wright, Andy Townsend, Robbie Earle and Garth Crooks…
I would mention that I have won the World Cup twice on Championship Manager, once as France and once as England (I know!)
I'm just sayin'.
Coming soon: The return of the Predictions League....