Friday, July 31, 2009

Bobby Robson for England (v France), 27 November 1957

One of the most upsetting things about growing older is that people who you have spent your whole life admiring, respecting or loving start to die. When you're a kid, the deaths of people don't effect you quite so much as your little brain can't cope with the emotion and you haven't had long enough to get to know the person involved. In my mid-thirties, I find now that the deaths of both people I know and celebrities who provide the backdrop to my childhood and adult life hit me much harder.

Never has this been truer than when I heard the devastating news this morning that England legend Sir Bobby Robson had lost his battle with cancer. He was 76. Robson never managed a club I supported (with the exception of Barcelona for whom I have a soft spot for family reasons), and I never had the pleasure of meeting the man. What he did do however was provide the wallpaper for my entire life as a football fan from my early teenage years.

For many people my age the World Cup in Italy in 1990 is one of their defining football memories. In the days before football was on our televisions twenty four hours a day we all crowded around our sets at World Cup time to watch the magic of the world's best footballers - these exotic players who we only ever got to see once every four years or so. Italia 90 was no exception. The hairs on the back of your neck standing up when Nessun Dorma started playing on the television, Des Lynam's consummate professionalism and the hope, as ever, that it might *just* be England's time.

Bobby Robson was holding onto the England job by the skin of his teeth in 1990, lest we forget. A terrible Euro 88 nearly cost the Geordie his job as England boss but as the squad arrived in Italy with such talent as Barnes, Lineker, Beardsley, Waddle and, of course, Gascoigne there was hope (if not expectation) that England would perform.

Italia 90 provides to this day some of the most iconic images of my football life. Rijkaard and Voller's spat, Schillaci's eyes bulging from his head and the tears of England's number 19. That tournament also endeared Bobby Robson to the English public, an affection which he would never, ever wane. His fist pumping encouragement to his England side is seared into my memory, as is his "one man conga" down the touchline as David Platt's volley hit the back of the Belgian net.

For the thickness of a goalpost and a couple of miscued penalties Robson could be spoken of in the same breath as Sir Alf Ramsey. Still, England came as close to winning the World Cup in 1990 as we ever will in my lifetime and Robson was a national hero.

Lest we forget his achievements as a manager, they are considerable. The FA Cup and UEFA Cup with Ipswich Town. Two Eredivisie Championships with PSV Eindhoven in 1991 and 1992. The Portuguese Cup and Championship between 1994 and 1996. The Copa del Rey and European Cup Winners Cup with a Ronaldo inspired Barcelona in 1997. He also guided Newcastle United to a third place finish in the Premier League, famously winning his first home game in charge 8-0.

As well as the iconic images from the World Cup in 1990, my abiding memory of Robson will be his humility and tears on the presentation of the BBC Sports Personality "Lifetime Achievement" award in 2007. He was clearly and visibly moved by the presentation by Sir Alex Ferguson, the appearance of many of his players and peers and also the presence of his wife Elsie who survives him.

Sir Bobby Robson was, quite simply, one of the finest English managers of all time and one of the nicest men in football. He will be sorely missed.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

John Thompson for Notts County (vs Wycombe Wanderers), 2nd May 2009

In something of a reversal of the plot of "Mike Bassett: England Manager", where the manager of a lower league club is made the manager of the national team, Sven Goran Eriksson, the former manager of the English national team, has just taken up the reigns at Notts County, a team in the fourth tier of English football.

You couldn't make it up. Truth really is sometimes even stranger than fiction.

Sven is apparently keen to move up to the Nottingham area, and just in case people aren't familiar with Nottingham, the Sun was quickly on hand with the key information:

"SVEN will find it hard NOT to score in Nottingham - rated by a dating website as one of Britain's best places to find eligible totty. But he faces tough competition as its reputation has also turned it into the country's top destination for stag parties. If he's on form, Sven could maybe bag a beauty like actress Samantha Morton, who hails from the city.

Nottingham girls are famously pretty - with many descended from those drawn from far and wide to work in its historic lace industry. For post-match fun, Sven will find the nightclubs very raunchy but a far cry from many of London's celeb-infested haunts. A good place to start is the city centre venue Rock City, which has two-for-one drinks every Thursday. Then there's Tantra, which supplies romantic revellers with vast beds to lounge on. Back of the net! For an added bonus, Nottingham is groaning under the weight of student totty - mainly because its universities offer some of the country's best nursing courses. As for the boozers, the nearest to Notts County's 20,000-capacity Meadow Lane is The Globe. It serves a cracking pie and pint, but isn't famed for its lady folk. Not to worry, Sven. A ten-minute walk from the ground takes you to Hooters, a bar and grill staffed by scantily-clad girls. Sven, who's partial to a cocktail and sushi, is more likely to be offered a pint of Rock Bitter or Rock Mild made at the famous Nottingham Brewery.

Locals often down it with a large bread roll called a cob.

The ever-sartorial Swede will be pleased to know top designer Paul Smith is from Nottingham, and has his flagship store there."

Pretty girls, Hooters, Paul Smith and cobs. It's all you really need to know, isn't it?

Sheesh. "....a large bread roll called a cob"??? Where exactly do they think Nottingham is? Abroad?

The Mirror, meanwhile, focuses the full forensic power of their expert analysis on telling their readers "Why Sven Goran Erikkson would be awful at Championship Manager and why Notts Country are doomed". Apparently Ferguson, Wenger, Pulis and Hughes would be pretty good, Redknapp and Allardyce would be brilliant but they have their doubts about the likes of Ancelotti and Benitez. Sven, they reckon, would stink at the game. Quite what that has to do with anything remains unclear. Perhaps he's really good at Sonic the Hedgehog? That's probably got just as much in common with actually running a real life football club as Championship Manager.....

As you might expect, the Guardian manages to assume a vastly more sophisticated tone in their coverage, and inform and entertain their readers with a list of all the things Sven needs to know about his new club. A list that includes such vital information as this:

"The definitive supporters' song is called I Had a Wheelbarrow. It goes: "I had a wheelbarrow, the wheel fell off/I had a wheelbarrow, the wheel fell off", to the tune of On Top of Old Smokey. Nobody really knows why."

Perhaps they reckon that a more educated, liberal, middle-class readership will already be well aware of what a cob is?

Oh, and Hooters is not a ten minute walk away from the ground. It's much nearer than that. And all you can eat chicken wings is only £6.99 per person all day on a Monday, so it's great value. Half price ribs on a Wednesday too, and kids eat free on a Sunday....

[I originally published this elsewhere, but then remembered that I also contribute to a football blog, so please excuse the repost....]