Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Craig Bellamy for Newcastle Utd (v Feyenoord), 13 November 2002

So, here we are again. The A-Z of Football reaches its sixth letter, as the CUAS massive ignore topics like "football" and "Fulham" is favour of, er, small men attached to handles, Dutch away nights, peas and Tim Gudgin. Amongst others.

The A-Z Of Football

F is for FA Cup Final (Lord Bargain)

I’ve thought long and hard about why the FA Cup has lost its glamour. The simple answer is, “I don’t know”. I suppose it’s that the European tournaments have taken precedence and so the qualification for the Champions League is now the be-all-and-end-all for fans of the “top” clubs.

Or maybe it is because the gap between the top clubs and the rest is bigger than ever, and so winning the Cup is no longer a realistic aim for any bar the top clubs. With the exception of Wimbledon and Coventry, no-one outside Liverpool, Arsenal, Man Utd, Spurs or Everton has won the Cup since the 1970’s.

The FA Cup Final holds my first real memories of football. I was nine when I went to my first FA Cup Final – the replay between Man Utd and Brighton in 1983. In those days, tickets for the 100,000 capacity Wembley were like gold dust. In the days before eBay and corporate packages, you had to have a mate whose mum knew someone who worked at the local FA to even get a sniff of a ticket.

I remember my Dad coming home with the tickets that day and getting to hold one was like being Charlie Bucket with a golden pass to Willy Wonka’s factory.

And then what? Running into the street when Norman Whiteside’s curling shot hit the back of the net in extra time in 1985? The Crazy Gang beating the Culture Club in 1988? Ian Rush being the first person to come on as sub in a Cup Final and score twice since….Stuart McCall two minutes earlier? The brilliant Palace v Man Utd 3-3 final of 1990.

My second FA Cup Final was in 1994. Perched delightfully in the centre of the Chelsea end, I sat on my hands for 90 minutes as Eric Cantona inspired United to a 4-0 triumph. What a dreadful result. Etc.

My third and final Cup Final trip was the following year. In excellent neutral seats with my Toffee-supporting girlfriend, Everton upset the odds with a hard fought 1-0 victory.

Since then, you can count the number of decent Finals on one finger; 2006’s Liverpool v West Ham match. At a push the last 20 minutes of the Liverpool v Arsenal final of 2001 were exciting (Michael Owen’s two late goals winning the trophy) but the remainder were one-sided and dull. Plus if you want a ticket, eBay will oblige, it’s on at least one TV channel and the winner gets nothing bar a place in the UEFA Cup.

I suppose that’s it in a nutshell. “The winner gets nothing bar a place in the UEFA Cup”. Other than the FA Cup itself and winning the tournament, which, it seems is barely enough these days.

F is for Feyenoord (Paul)

It's Wednesday 13 November 2002, and Newcastle United are one game away from making Champions League history. Never before has a team lost its opening three group games and still qualified for the post-Christmas section of the competition. After defeats to Juventus, Feyenoord and Dynamo Kiev, Newcastle have managed to turn things around to leave the group on a knife-edge. If Juventus win against Kiev, and Newcastle beat Feyenoord, then we go through.

Unable to be in Holland, I opt for the next best thing - ITV2 in my living room in Guildford with friends, beer and curry.

Newcastle start well - and by half time we are have acquired a 2 goal lead (courtesy of Craig Bellamy and Hugo Viana). However, it will all count for nothing if Juve can't do something against Kiev.

Then, as only Newcastle can, things start to go awry, and whilst the Old Lady of Turin starts to do us a favour, we start to shoot ourselves in the foot, and allow Feyenoord to score. Twice.

Typical Newcastle - the favour we need, we get. The performance we need, we can't manage.

Then, with seconds left on the clock, Kieron Dyer bursts through on goal. With only the keeper to beat, Kieron does exactly what I expect him to do, and side foots the ball to the keeper's left with little power. Unsurprisingly the keeper saves it, and then (and this bit replays in slow-motion every time I think about it, even now) Craig Bellamy scampers on to the ball and forces it home.

The team erupt in joy, the fans erupt in joy, and a small living room in Guildford erupts in joy. I actually have to go outside and shout for joy - doubtless much to the bemusement of my neighbours.

I have never ever experienced a thrill that great from watching a football match ever.

F is for Food and Drink - (Skif)

What is the the pre-match checklist?

Pie (n’ peas if you’re north of Derbyshire)
And a piss.

More than half of football attendees can live without the programme, so maybe not so essential. You might also be willing to risk running the gauntlet of getting through the 90 minutes without attempting to erode your zip fly with a sudden goal-propelled jet of backed-up russet-hued urine. Good for you.

Which leaves the pie and a pint, or variations on that theme. Intrinsic to the football experience for a great many fans is the food and drink, from the flat-capped groundhoppers twisting the caps of their Thermos, to the Dads having their jeans tugged by little un’s desperate for a burger, their tiny tastebuds innocent to the full horror of the polar-cap of a bap that will envelop a patty of meat so limp it comes with its own orthopaedic shoe.

Still it’s not only the young who don’t learn quick. At Barrow a year ago, I spent a good few minutes in the tea-bar queue only to be rewarded with a brew that will go down in history as the worst that British football catering has to offer. Admittedly, for the "tea" this was rather like turning out for a Timmy Mallett-lookalike contest and leaving only with the ‘Biggest Funt’ spot-prize. At least the powder teas you sometimes get (I’m looking at you, Basingstoke Town) advertise their foulness by congealing into a surface-pox. The Skiffoid tongue, on that occasion, was not fore-armed.

Keen to cleanse the system, the gutter-behind-a-wall urinals was the half-time port of call, where the floor was festooned with tissues, coke cans and an empty quarter bottle of Napoleon French Brandy. It seems it has been one of those seasons. It might also have accounted for Barrow’s heavy-legged defensive display that afternoon.

This, of course, brings me to booze. Although I should ask while we’re on the hot terrace beverages, does Bovril exist on the unbelievers side of the turnstiles?

Anyway, booze. At most English grounds, even in the non-league, you’ll be hard pressed to find a ground that allows you to take your beer on the terraces, even in a plastic vessel. I can think of two. It’s not so strict in Europe, of course. I’ve stood Rapid Vienna fans packing away the pints amidst the odd Bratwurst pit-stop. The best though was watching (much) lower-league football in the south of the Czech Republic, where a tiny beer hut [as seen bottom left in picture below] was arguably the main attraction as FK Slavoj Český Krumlov beat ZD Olesnik 1-0 in the Jihočeský přebor, the regional 5th level of Czech football. I think 1-0 was the score anyway. That Czech lager is as strong as a heavily tattooed ox.

The big away day beano is football’s social masterpiece and, when it stays relatively sensible, adds a bit of colour to town centres on Saturday lunchtimes. It is perhaps that which represents week-in, week-out football support the best. However some will tell you it is the pie. I’m not so sure, but certainly pies are pretty big business, particularly in the professional leagues. Think Chelsea v Man U is football’s premier showdown. Nah, Hollands versus Pukka. Everytime.

Its cut-throat stuff is the football pie business though. Shire Foods sponsored the 2004 edition of Duncan Adams’ ‘The Essential Football Fan’, a complete guide to our nation’s professional grounds for away travellers. In the gastronomical guide for most of the grounds, one phrase appears with odd regularity. “The delicious ‘Football’s Famous Chicken Balti Pie’ is available inside the ground.” To me a sentence that clunky could put me off my dinner for a week, let alone while elbowing your way through the tea-bar queue.

And you thought Hollywood was rife with product placement? Nah, ground’oppin’s where the big bucks are, chump.

F is for foosball (Ben)

“Wilkommen zum Fussball”, as Pele never tired of saying in the ad breaks during the World Cup (we soon tired of hearing it, though).

My subject isn’t “Fussball”, football in German, the Bundesliga etc; it’s foosball, what the French (among those who claim to have invented it) call “le babyfoot” and what we, more prosaically, call “table football”.

What relation can a game played by two or four people on a table of around 140cm by 70cm possibly bear to the real thing, a sport played by twenty-two people on a grass (or sometimes mud) pitch around a hundred times larger?

Well, more than you might think.

Foosball can be a game of drama and excitement, and often of skill – though if you’ve ever witnessed a non-league football dogfight, then you’ll be familiar with the way the ball often just pings around manically without any player being able to put their foot on it and calm things down.

Table footballers are a manager’s dream, superbly disciplined in maintaining their formation even under pressure. Though that formation is often a Keegan-esque gung-ho 2-5-3, the defence in particular holds the sort of rigid line that George Graham’s Arsenal would have been proud of; it’s just a shame that opposing forwards can never actually spring the offside trap, and even if they could there wouldn’t be a referee to award the free kick.

And if the foosballers are rather less likely than your average Premiership star to be caught indulging in a spot of roasting, then they are nevertheless just as likely to be found in a bar late at night.

I’ve never found that the consumption of alcohol is particularly conducive to attempting to play a game which demands lightning reactions and considerable co-ordination – well, that’s my excuse anyway. But some of my friends are keen enthusiasts, so much so that the closure of the West Side Bar in Nottingham was lamented because its one redeeming feature was a foosball table.

Being unable to find a table has never been a problem for a couple of them, whose passion for the game was nurtured in a town (Newtown, in mid Wales) where the game was so popular that for a while there was a table football league along the same lines as a pool or darts league. When they went out and bought their own table, one had to take the side off the caravan he was living in just to accommodate it because it wouldn’t fit through the door. Participation in the UK Table Football Championships – and a creditable performance – followed.

They’ve since sold that table but remain bitten by the bug – perhaps it’s the thrill of the game, or perhaps it’s the lingering hope that it might be their passport to finding WAGs. ‘Table Footballers’ Wives’ – now there’s a programme I’d like to see.

F is for Final Score (Swiss Toni)

I think the magic is in that pause:

“Leicester City 2….”

There’s probably less than a second’s gap before the score is completed, but that tiny moment’s hesitation is all football fans across the country need to engage in their favourite guessing game. Was there anything in the tone of voice that might lead us to deduce the result? Have the home side bagged the points? Have they been hammered? Who were they playing again?

“… Wolverhampton Wanderers...”

Sometimes the bastard event throws in a second pause before finally putting me out of my misery.

“… nil”

Is it me, or did he sound faintly surprised by that score? Or was it just a weary resignation? Delight? Is he a Leicester fan? A Wolves fan? Does he even like football? Before I’ve had time to really think about it, we’re already moved on to Luton’s scoreless draw with Barnsley.

A bloke reading out the classified football results: it shouldn’t make gripping television, but somehow it does. It started on Grandstand at some point in the 1950s, and although the parent programme is sadly no longer with us, Final Score is still going strong. Amazingly, in all that time, only two people have read out the scores: Len Martin and, since 1995, Tim Gudgin. Now that’s a great gig to get, isn’t it? The hours are good (about 5 minutes a week), you’re on national TV and it appears to be a job for life. Gudgin is now pushing 80 though… so what do you think my chances are? Where do I apply? Do you think it would be bad form to apply before the old boy’s actually popped his clogs? Maybe they’ve got Garth Crooks lined up already...


Brilliant, again. Thanks to all for their contributions. "G" next. Hmmm. Gretna? George Graham? Glenn Hoddle?.....


skif said...

I call Gretna.


adem said...

I'm even going to submit for the next one"

skif said...

As for the magic of the FA Cup. I think that might well be the case for the bigger clubs, but for followers of lower-league and non-league clubs (well, those of us who do fairly well in it, I guess), then there is the desire to get to the first round or third round, whichever represents the ideal achievement for a team at your level.

There will be some, even there, who see it as a distraction from the bread and butter league activity. Crowds do tend to go down for clubs unless they are approaching a significant milestone.

So I can see why boredom does set in around about Round 4 for followers of the bigger teams, cos I feel it too. I can tell you, like many, I am no longer arsed about this year's competition.

In the early stages though, I love it. This year I attended a game in each of the seven rounds up to and including the first proper. In only three of those game was I partisan. It really doesn't matter to me. There's somethign in the air in the Cup, even at the Extra Preliminary, without doubt.

And in terms of my team, each win's good for cash too, which always helps.

I say these things, despite the fact that my team had their best FA Cup year so far this year (third time in 1st round proper but first time drawn against a league club) and actually lost money. Quite a bit in fact.
Which you can read about here. You'll see though that it had it's compensations.

As such, I am already giddy about the idea of next year's cup, and not only dreaming of Leeds United away (could happen, if they carry on the way they are), but also about rocking up to sides lower in the pyramid that we don't usually get to play in the qualifiers.

Even with the inherent banana-related dangers of that.

Perhaps I should just speak for myself, but I really can't get enough of it.

Bring on next year's Road to Wembley, well at least the road to Chelsea v Bolton in round 4, anyway.

skif said...

"they are nevertheless just as likely to be found in a bar late at night."

One of my favourite puns of all time, right there. Handsome.

Ben said...

To return the compliment...

"You might also be willing to risk running the gauntlet of getting through the 90 minutes without attempting to erode your zip fly with a sudden goal-propelled jet of backed-up russet-hued urine"

"a patty of meat so limp it comes with its own orthopaedic shoe"

Stop it, Skif - the rest of us might as well give up now!

Enjoying this feature almost as much as I enjoyed the finale to that Feyenoord game...

Andy said...

Excellent feature as always.

As a Bristol City fan I have to say my faith in the FA cup has been restored somewhat this season. Since beating Gillingham 4-3 in the second round, we've taken Coventry to a replay with a 3-3 draw at Ashton Gate (and won it 2-0). Then in the fifth round we've taken Middlesbrough to a replay after coming back from a two-goal deficit, only to lose on sudden death penalties (after another cracking 2-2 draw).

Yakubu missing the fifth penalty to win the game, after being psyched out by our keeper (who had saved one during extra time by standing still), was priceless. Sending our inexperienced bag of nerves left-back to take the next kick however, was not.

I suppose the cup may have lost some of it's glamour for the supporters of the top clubs, whose real ambition nowadays is clearly a place in the Champion's league. However, for followers of smaller clubs it's still got a lot of potential to provide that all-important magic moment.

As for babyfoot (I'm afraid it's the only decent thing ever to have come out of France, so has to be 'babyfoot'), I wasted my two years at A-level college playing it constantly, and here comes my all time sporting claim to fame...I once beat the British Champion, who had just returned from the World Championships in Florida (and had a side business maintaining babyfoot tables in the South West).

Of course, he taught me a lesson or two afterwards, but yes, once you get passed the random elements (and ban spinning!), it's a hugely under-rated game.

Phill said...

For a while I dabbled in foosball and even got quite good at it (that was before I took up crazy golf, which is of course another story)

However I managed to get blacklisted and ostracized from the table football world after an altercation with the British number 5 involving a tube of WD40 and a pint of Boddingtons...

A legal banning order prevents me from revealing any more.

I now like to think of myself as the bad boy of table football forced into early retirement - like Cantona...