Monday, November 28, 2011

Gary Speed for Wales (against Moldova), 12th October 1994

Before I say anything else, let me just make it clear that I think that Gary Speed’s death yesterday, at the age of 42, is unquestionably tragic; an awful, shocking piece of news. It’s difficult for me to imagine a circumstance so terrible that hanging myself seemed the best option, and I hope I never experience anything remotely approaching it. At the moment it seems pointless to speculate on the circumstances surrounding Speed’s death. For me, it’s enough to know that another human being reached the point where he took his own life. Horrible.

Gary Speed was an excellent footballer: you don’t make 840 domestic appearances (including a once-record 535 Premier League games) or win 85 caps for your country without having some talent. Listening to the hysterical coverage over the media yesterday in the wake of the news of his death, however, and you’d imagine that he was one of the most remarkable people ever to live. Mark Pougatch was anchoring BBC Radio Five Live’s coverage, and his reaction was typically overblown: he remarked that he had never, in the whole of his broadcasting career, which includes presenting current affairs programmes, covered a story so remarkable. I can understand why friends and colleagues of Speed – people like Robbie Savage and Shay Given – would be stunned by the news of the sudden death of someone close to them. But everyone else? Was it really a stop all the clocks moment?

If – and it’s apparently by no means certain – Speed was suffering from depression, then we can hope that this news serves to help spread understanding and awareness of an awful condition that can strike anyone, no matter how famous, wealthy or happy they may superficially appear to be. There have already been a number of high profile footballers who have suffered from depression in recent years: coincidentally, Stan Collymore wrote movingly about his own experiences of the illness on Saturday, at more or less the same time as Speed was appearing on the BBCs Football Focus programme, talking brightly of his plans for a future. Less then 24 hours later, Gary Speed was dead and that future - his future - died with him.

It’s only a couple of years too since the German International goalkeeper, Robert Enke  killed himself in 2009 at the age of 32 after battling with depression for six years. It’s an awful, often invisible condition, that strikes without warning and without discrimination and that we understand so poorly.

Speed’s death was sad; the tragedy of a life snuffed out too soon. A tragedy for sure, but also the kind of tragedy that happens every day. Every death is a tragedy in its own way: every soldier or civilian blown up in Afghanistan, even those who don’t receive a funeral procession through Royal Wooton Bassett, every child in the third world who dies of a treatable illness, every cancer victim, every road traffic accident, those Russian sailors not rescued by Prince William… but not every passing will be marked by minutes of silence or of applause, or by tearful fans tying scarves to the gates of football clubs or by special phone-in programmes on the radio. Gary Speed was clearly a much loved and respected man, but it should not lessen the tragedy of his death on Sunday to acknowledge that he was just another human being in a long list whose lives ended too soon. In the UK alone, the statistics tell us that 15 other people took their own lives on the very same day that Speed took his (more than 6,000 each year in the UK and rising). The fact that those other suicides may be less marked does not make them less significant. Crying more loudly doesn’t make the tragedy any greater or the loss any more deeply felt by the bereaved.

Football is a strange sport: it is resolutely hard-nosed and yet also incorrigibly sentimental. The death of such a well-respected football man, especially at such an age and in such circumstances, was always likely to provoke an outpouring of emotion around the country, especially at those clubs where Speed played or in the country he represented with such distinction, both as player and latterly as manager. What has surprised me, however, is the apparent depth of our emotional incontinence, the sudden outpouring of feeling and an apparently nationwide desire to wallow - and judging by the radio this evening, we're still wallowing -  in what seems like a disproportionate level of grief. A tragedy, yes….but a cause of nationwide mourning and gnashing of teeth?  According to the media - and we are led by the coverage of events like this in the media to set the tone - then yes, it is.

I can’t help but wonder, if that other famous recent football suicide, Justin Fashanu, had been found dead in that Shoreditch lockup in 2011 and not in 1998, would he have got the same sort of reaction?

Gary Speed, human being. 1969-2011. R.I.P.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Lukas Podolski for Germany (vs England), 27th June 2010

Well, I never thought I'd see the day when I saw a major sporting organising body displaying levels of incompetence to match the likes of FIFA or the FA.  It looks as though the RFU, the body governing English rugby union may just about take the biscuit.

Let's take a moment to remember that rugby fans - myself included - like to assume the high ground in any conversation with football fans: the players and the fans are better behaved, the referee is treated with respect and his decisions are final... blah blah blah.  Oh, how those chickens have come home to roost now.  Amidst the debris of a failed World Cup campaign, recriminations and resignations are flying around, confidential reports are being leaked left, right and centre.  The players, as well as being awful on the pitch, apparently behaved atrociously off it as well, harassing hotel employees, drinking and dwarf tossing, abusing major sponsors, jumping off public ferries.... you name it, the England rugby team appear to have done it, all whilst keeping the main eye on their sponsorship opportunities.

Lest we get too carried away with our schadenfreude, however there are a couple of things that I think we can learn from this:

1) English rugby can surely sink no lower than this.  Those confidential reports should never have been leaked (called "Twickileaks", obviously) and are a catastrophic breach of trust with the players.  That said, now that the truth is out there, there is absolutely no hiding away from the fact that changes need to be made; changes to coaches, playing staff and to the bureaucracy behind the scenes.  How much would you give for something similar to happen to English football?  Would you like to read the candid, anonymous views of the players and coaching staff on the 2010 World Cup debacle?  Wouldn't you really like to know what the players think of John Terry as a captain or of Fabio Cappello as a coach? I know I would.  We've lived with decades of disappointment -- remember that England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003 - maybe something like this would make that fundamental change that could make us winners again.

2) I'm not sure that England's football players would be as eloquent in a written report on a World Cup campaign as some of their rugby playing counterparts.  The rugby players use words like "philosophy", "lacklustre" and "blueprint".  I wonder if Wayne Rooney knows what a blueprint is; a poster from Picasso's Periodo Azul, perhaps?  Even if they could string a written sentence together, would your average England international footballer be able to step away from the bland even in an anonymous report?

I can remember English cricket hitting rock bottom when we struggled in a test series against Zimbabwe.  We're now the number one Test playing side in the world, and that hasn't happened by accident, but by rigorous player selection and coaching and through meticulous planning.  Martin Johnson ultimately failed in his role as coach of England rugby at least partly because of his loyalty to old hands like Jonny Wilkinson and Lewis Moody; great servants of England rugby who had simply reached the end of the line.  Hmmm.   As Euro 2012 approaches, it's hard not to draw similar conclusions about players like John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard.  Let's hope the football team doesn't make the same mistakes as the rugby team, and that we're not reading the usual sob stories in the players' latest round of autobiographies next Autumn.

Monday, November 14, 2011

John Terry for England (vs Hungary), 30th May 2006

I listened to a bit of John Terry's press conference today on the news.

It made me wonder why they bothered with them.  Seriously, when was the last time that you heard something interesting at a football press conference from a player (or, indeed, from anyone)?

To be fair to Terry, the questions that most people wanted to ask him were related to the racism row that is the subject to a police investigation, so he can hardly be blamed for not wanting to comment on that, and I suppose he was pretty brave to front up at all when he didn't have to..... but even so, what he did say was a long stream of fairly meaningless platitudes.  I'm so proud to play for my country...blah blah... game's changed since I was a kid... blah blah... jumpers for goalposts... the boys are playing so well... blah blah... no one is undroppable...

What's the point?  If the players aren't going to say anything at all insightful or interesting, then why bother?

When actors are interviewed, they're almost always plugging something, and there's a mandatory bit in every interview where they tell us about how this is such a great movie and how happy they were to work with their co-stars and the director.  Fine.  That's part of the package and is why they agree to be interviewed anyway.  Even so, am I wrong in thinking that actors still manage to be more interesting than footballers in a similar situation?  Now that I think of it, did John Terry even talk much about the Sweden game that he is promoting?

Musicians are even better value, many not being afraid to fire their mouths off as they promote their latest album... although, to be fair, manufactured boy bands apart, they're expected to misbehave and stirring up a controversy is hardly likely to harm their record sales.

So what is it about footballers?  Why are they so anodyne?

Well, the press itself is obviously in large part responsible: the moment a footballer steps out of line, then the media is more than happy to climb onto their moral high-horses and lambast them with the full-force of their righteousness.  These players earn hundreds of thousands of pounds each week, and apparently that fact makes them fair game.  John Terry himself knows this better than almost any other current footballer, so is it any surprise that he's cautious never to step out of line when there is a microphone or a journalist anywhere near his face.

That's not the only reason though.  I think there's a much simpler explanation: footballers are simply not clever enough or interesting enough to keep an insatiable media satisfied.  That's not necessarily a reflection of the stupidity of the average footballer.... although you do have to ask why John Terry keeps on getting caught out by the media, time after time, when he knows they're watching him and will crucify him at every possible opportunity, and I do wonder about whether he has the wit to answer a simple question in an interesting way.... It's not even particularly an observation about how one-dimensional most footballer's lives seem to be, although they do some awfully dull people: they play football, they display a spectacular lack of judgement and taste in how they spend their riches and they don't read books.

No, I think it might just be a reflection of how voracious our football media is.  There is no one, no matter how smart or interesting, who could be smart enough or interesting enough to be able to feed these wolves for long if they came under their spotlight.  John Terry said absolutely nothing interesting in his press conference today, and it was still dissected in minute detail by the press: it will be the lead story on the back pages tomorrow, and Radio 5 Live has just spent the last hour debating his non-comments in almost forensic detail.

Can you imagine how they'd react if he said something even mildly interesting?

Poor lamb.  It's almost enough to make me feel a bit sorry for him.


...and then I remembered what a charmless, unpleasant individual he is and how much he gets paid for how little, and realised that a mildly uncomfortable half hour spouting practiced platitudes at the press really is money for old rope.  He doesn't get paid extra for selling papers, does he?  Why should he bother being interesting?

As captain of our national football team, he represents this country, you know....although looking around, maybe that's about right.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ugo Ehiogu for England (vs Spain), 28th February 2001

I originally published this post here back in November 2009, talking about the crusade to try to shame all Premier League clubs into attaching a poppy to their playing shirts, but the current furore around FIFA's refusal to make an exception and allow the English football team to display the same emblem on their shirts in this week's international match against Spain is essentially the same argument being repeated again.  The reaction to this "refusal" (actually a refusal to break a rule that applies to ALL emblems - a more commercially motivated version of what we might call the Jon Snow defence) has been widespread, including the Prime Minister and Prince William as well as the luminaries and reknowned patriots of the English Defence League.

It is an entirely predictable outrage, and we have the same tired old reaction around the poppy every year with tedious regularity... and in fact, the outrage itself really proves FIFA's point that the poppy clearly IS a political symbol.

The FA might have now reached a compromise with FIFA that enables the team to wear poppies on black armbands, but the whole incident does nobody any credit and certainly does not indicate to me any greater respect for Our Brave Troops.

Anyway, here's my rant again.  Still sadly apt.  I fully expect more tiresome and predictable criticism of Jon Snow for his refusal to bow to "poppy fascism" and wear one as he reads the news.  You can set your watch by it.

Anyway.  Here's the 2009 post.


There's a bit in Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" where Captain Black runs something he calls the "Glorious Loyalty Oath Campaign", where everyone in the squadron finds themselves forced to sign oaths pledging their loyalty in order to get absolutely anything or everything:

"Almost overnight the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was in full flower, and Captain Black was enraptured to discover himself spearheading it. He had really hit on something. All the enlisted men and officers on combat duty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receive their flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motor vehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks. Every time they turned around there was another loyalty oath to be signed. They signed a loyalty oath to get their pay from the finance officer, to obtain their PX supplies, to have their hair cut by the Italian barbers. To Captain Black, every officer who supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-four hours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to country. When other officers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by making every son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then he introduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that "The Star-Spangled Banner," one chorus, two choruses, three choruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon them scornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concern and racked his brain for some new stratagem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again"

Of course, anyone refusing to sign one of these oaths is immediately branded as somehow being disloyal to their country, to their flag and to their cause:

"Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated by the administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day long by one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would not mind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as he forced them to.

Captain Black's rival, Major Major, is actively prevented from signing any of these oaths, even if he wanted to:

"What makes you so sure Major Major is a Communist?"
"You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you? And you don't see him signing any of our loyalty oaths."
"You aren't letting him sign any."
"Of course not," Captain Black explained. "That would defeat the whole purpose of our crusade".

Thus does Joseph Heller neatly skewer empty patriotism.

I was reminded of this when reading about the Daily Mail's latest campaign to try and get every Premier League football club to display a poppy on their matchday shirts during November.

[did you notice that most Premier League clubs - but not all - had poppies in place on the shirts last weekend, in the last round of fixtures before Remembrance Day 2011? In the Blackburn v Chelsea game, the home side had poppies and the away side did not... although there was a wreath and a solemn silence and apparently that was enough to avoid comment.  Perhaps people were saving all their anger for the International game?]

As a result of their bullying, there are now only three of the twenty clubs holding out: Liverpool, Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers [Bolton ended up wearing poppies in 2009, and as you'll notice from the picture of Super Kev above, taken last weekend, they didn't bother putting up a fight at all this year]. As a spokesman for Manchester Utd not unreasonably said:

"We don’t think it’s particularly necessary. We sell poppies around the ground and all our officials wear them and we work with Armed Forces charities in a lot of other ways throughout the year."

Not good enough, apparently, and the Mail is continuing to try to bully them into changing their minds. Obviously, their readers are full of considered opinions on the subject. Here's lazzruss:

"Yes Yes Yes!!! It is beyond my capacity to put into words how this 'government' has ruined our once Great Britain by sytematically [sic] attacking our spiritual and historical heritage and culture and we have had enough! Banning poppies is the final insult to our nation as this shows a complete disregard and contempt for our Glorious Dead who gave everything including their very lives for the sake of the future of our Nation and every football team owes them their success and privileges - to display a simple poppy proudly on their shirts should be a moral imperative for anyone who loves our Country and what we (not the inept and shameful Labour Government) stand for."

Let's leave aside the fact that the majority of the players in the Premier League aren't even English, eh? Why let that get in the way of a good rant about WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY?

Um, perhaps it's a statement of the obvious, but if you try to force people to wear a poppy, aren't you restricting our freedom to choose not to wear one? Isn't that the same freedom that "Our Glorious Dead' (note the capitalisation) fought for? Like it or not, that's the same freedom that allows a student to get so paralytically drunk that he urinated on a war memorial in Sheffield. Not very nice, for sure, but surely more a story about binge drinking than it is about any calculated disrespect for the dead, whatever the Daily Mail try to make of the story (flogging too good for him, naturally).

This "Poppy fascism" seems to be everywhere at the moment. Apparently the BBC are under pressure because the dancers on "Strictly..." weren't wearing poppies last week. All of the judges were, but none of the dancers. Not good enough, apparently, as everyone on the X-Factor was wearing one.... The BBC initially (and not very bravely) hid behind "Health & Safety issues" as the reason why the dancers weren't wearing poppies, but have now apparently changed their minds in the face of all this public outrage. 

Where does this oneupmanship and assumed moral authority stop? Why are we only displaying our poppies for a couple of weeks of November? Does that mean we're being disrespectful and unpatriotic for the other 50 weeks of the year? Should we all be dyeing our hair red and tattooing poppies onto our cheeks so we can be displaying our gratitude and support for the sacrifices made on our behalf every single day of the year?

Of course, you can trust the good old Guardian for an alternative view, and Marina Hyde today has a good rant about this "phony poppy apoplexy":

"So on Saturday, know that every late challenge, every sending-off, will be in the memory of those who fell in battle. Then accept the fact that media campaigns to foreground the poppies that are not being worn, as opposed to the ones that are, serve not as a memorial to the sacrifices made on our behalf, but as a reminder of our hard-wired one‑upmanship and infinite capacity to find ways to divide ourselves."

The commentators are even more strident:

"Forced wearing of the poppy to commemorate a fight against tyranny? Britain seems to get sillier and sillier, and more and more irrelevant every week."

It seems that the spirit of Captain Black is alive and well and still busily hunting out people who won't sign his loyalty oaths.

"You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you?"

Think on that if you leave your house without a poppy this November.


Two years on, and the same tired old arguments and outrage are very much in evidence again.  Depressing, don't you think?  Perhaps we should be spending our weekends on a pilgrimage to the Cenotaph via Royal Wooton Bassett instead of watching a game of football?

Enjoy those armbands on the England side on Saturday, and let's think again on Marina Hyde's words from her 2009 article:

"So on Saturday, know that every late challenge, every sending-off, will be in the memory of those who fell in battle". 

Paul Hayward writes something similar in this year's Guardian:

"You either buy a poppy or you don't, you either wear it or you don't. You can buy one in October if you like, though you shouldn't have to, and if you are occasionally seen without one it doesn't make you a bad person. Because surely the whole strength behind the poppy's symbolism is that it is the most understated of statements. It is a quiet, gentle reminder, not a shouted command. Above all, as a gesture it is personal and private, and ought not to be forced to go public".

If we follow the logic of the poppy fascists further, if it's disrespectful to our brave troops not to wear a poppy, is it not also disrespectful if we don't play a full-strength side and if John Terry doesn't start? An insult to the memory of their sacrifices?  As LB said last night in the pub, what would our reaction be if the game on Saturday was against Argentina and they insisted on wearing a memorial to their Falklands dead?

Quite how this annual farce shows any respect for the people who have sacrificed their lives fighting for their countries is beyond me.


As a reminder of how quickly football can change, the first game of Sven Goran Eriksson's reign as England manager was against Spain in February 2001.  A Spanish side including Iker Casillas, Raul and Pep Guardiola lost 3-0 to goals by Nick Barmby, Emile Heskey and Ugo Ehiogu.  The start of the side hailed as a "Golden Generation".

England's line-up that night?

James, Phil Neville, Powell, Butt, Ferdinand, Campbell, Beckham, Scholes, Andy Cole, Owen, Barmby.
Subs: Gary Neville, Martyn, Brown, Ehiogu, Phillips, Sheringham, Fowler, Heskey, Lampard, Carragher, Wright, Ball, McCann.

Spain are, of course, now World and European champions.  England, meanwhile, have won chuff all.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Edison Arantes do Nascimento for Brazil (vs Sweden), 28th June 1958

I think this might very well be the greatest advert in the whole, wide world.

Looking good, Luis.  Looking good. Still got it, for sure.  But only -- ONLY -- because you have no visible grey hairs.  Learn from him: to the shops!  No time to spare!  Just For Men is the answer!

Like I say, the best advert in the world.

Oh no, wait a minute... I'd almost forgotten about this one.

 [sorry for the terrible quality, but it's all I could find....]

Pele, many people's vote for the greatest player the world has ever seen, dubbed by Peter Serafinowicz (of all people), bravely fronting up to a potentially very embarrassing issue for men of a certain age.

Well, I say bravely....

"Talk to your doctor.  I would.  But I don't need to.  Because I am Pele!  The greatest footballer who ever lived.  Clearly I haven't actually experienced any kind of erectile dysfunction myself.  Me! Edison Arantes do Nascimento.  The greatest player to kick a ball.  The very thought! But in the unlikely event that I somehow did have problems down there, I'd be down the doctor like a shot to get me some little blue pills.... but like I said, I'm fine.  Nothing to see here.  No... EVERYTHING to see here.  I've got it going on in my pants, for sure.  Yes sir.  But if you have problems, you should go.  Now.  In no way am I just saying these things for the money.  No way."


Friday, November 04, 2011

Ryujiro Ueda for Fagiano Okayama (v Yokohama FC), 30 October 2011

You may recall that a month or so ago we shared a video of what was generally believed to be the longest headed goal in the history of football. Jonas Samuelson had scored this header from his own half in a Norwegian league match, leading to a well-deserved fifteen minutes of fame.

Well, he must be livid. Barely a month after his world record breaking exploits someone has only gone and bettered it. You'd be livid, wouldn't you? Doing something that no-one in nearly 150 years of football has done before only for some upstart J-League player to come along four weeks later and do the same.

Anyway, here's Ryujido Ueda's effort for Fagiano Okayama in the J-League last weekend. Arguably it's a better goal as he has to actually beat the keeper (who doesn't cover himself in glory) rather than Samuelson who nodded his into an empty net....