Friday, 28 November 2014

GROAN OLD ON THE BORDERS OF FARCI-LAND

Hearing Sol Campbell bleating on about the unfairness of the Mansion Tax, listening to wealthy ex-players and bumptious commentators who've rarely paid to get into a game in their lives berating fans for not shelling out hard earned cash to watch pointless Champions League matches...Arsene Wenger once said  the Premiership made him feel he was living in 'Farci-land'. I can't recall what Princess-and-the-Pea-style irritation provoked the Frenchman to utter these words, but they have stuck with me. Today they seem more pertinent than ever. Top level football is increasingly like the eighteenth century Bourbon Monarchy, its preening royals and their sycophantic courtiers so dislocated from reality it is a form of madness..... Well, I'm not going to watch twenty-two Marie Antoinettes play today, or any other.  I'm going to see Benfield against Penrith via Victoria Park. I'm hoping to get tickets for next week's Hartlepool v Blyth FA Cup tie. Pools don't sell tickets on line and the ticket office staff are apparently far too busy to answer the phone, even on a wet Thursday morning. I'm not complaining, In fact I'm kind of pleased. It reminds me of the old days.

The following piece is from the dawn of the new century, when Farci-Land was in its infancy.





“You don’t get the build-up of atmosphere that you used to,” I said to a journalist from the Daily Mail one Saturday afternoon at the Riverside Stadium sometime around the turn of the century. We looked around the ground. It was ten minutes to three, another capacity crowd, yet, aside from the strip occupied by the away fans, 90 per cent of the red seats remained empty. “The fact that everybody’s buying their tickets in advance has something to do with it,” the Mail man said. “People know they’ll get in so they only turn up 15 minutes before kick off.”

I told him a Newcastle fan had recently remarked to me that we would be the last generation of fans who would remember what it was like to queue up at the turnstiles and pay cash. He nodded. “For a big game you had to start early,” he said. “You might be standing on the terraces an hour before kick-off, the space filling up around you.”

“And once you were in,” I added, “there was nothing else to do except stand and make a noise. People got impatient for kick-off. You could feel the agitation mounting, especially when the play­ers had gone in after the kickabout.” We stood for a moment in silence, looking at the open spaces, the people who would fill them down below us in the concourse eating, drinking, betting, chatting, listening to the incisive opinions of Rodney Marsh on Sky, then the man from the Mail be­gan to laugh.

“Listen to us,” he said, “we sound like a right pair of old fogies.” True enough, I suppose. Football, like pop music, has a nasty habit of suddenly and unexpectedly turning us into our parents. One minute you’re young and vibrant, the next you’re sat in a corner drinking milk stout, muttering “David Beck­ham? Ray Wilkins, now he could play a bit” and won­dering why they don’t write songs like Orgasm Addict any more. No matter how hard you try, it’s a trap which is hard to avoid. Cunning nature has concealed it too cleverly. You pick your way cautiously along studying the ground for signs of a covered pit and the next thing you know a net has dropped over your head.

A month or so ago someone played the Power Game theme to me on CD. This was the music Middlesbrough used to run out to. It was quite a shock to hear it. Not least because it turned out to be the kind of brassy, funky Hawaii 5-0 sort of a thing that seemed far too exotic to announce the arrival of Arthur Hors­field. I realised that, despite the fact that I had been present at the playing of this tune hundreds of times, I had only ever heard the first few bars of it, the rest had been drowned out by the noise of the crowd.

I mentioned this to the person who’d played it to me.

“What kind of crowd would it take to drown the sound of a modern stadium PA?” he said.

“I’m no expert, but my guess would be 250,000 and all with the lung capacity of Luc­iano Pavarotti. Last season I was at the Stad­ium of Light and that Republica song they play was so loud I practically had to cover my ears.”

“Maybe you should just have turned your hearing aid down,” he said.

What else should I expect? After all, there are university lecturers who are too young to remember the 1978 World Cup. It’s not that I sound like an old fogey, I am one.




However, I think in this case there might just be a bit more to it than can be put down simply to the toll the ageing process takes on our objectivity. (Let’s face it, I would, wouldn’t I?) For just as the arrival of Elvis Presley and the abolition of National Service opened up what had previously been a hairline fissure between parents and children into a gaping generation gap, so dramatic changes in football in the Nineties have cre­ated a group of fans grown old before their time.

For over a century the experience of going to football – turnstiles, terraces, and rudimentary toilet facilities – altered hardly at all. My grandfather’s first visit to Ayresome Park in 1912 was little different from my own 55 years later. Only the names of the players, the entry fee and the percentage of the crowd wearing flat caps had changed.

This is no longer true. Every once in a while, in a misguided attempt to put something back into the community, I go and talk to teenagers in the local comprehensive school. For them, things I wrote eight years ago require detailed historical explanation. Fif­teen-year-old fans of Premiership clubs cannot re­member standing or barely-functioning PA systems, or the days when live football on TV was an exciting novelty. The idea that there might have been a time when animal mascots did not cavort on the touchline to the sounds of Chumbawumba is as hard for them to imagine as the Blitz is for me. Nor do most of them attend games with any regularity. (Admittedly the town I now live in is so solidly bourgeois the local adult education night classes includes one entitled “Buying and owning a second home in France”, but even so).

The cost and scarcity of tickets to places like St James’ Park means that for many young fans going to matches takes on the kind novelty value that once sur­rounded a trip to the circus, a pantomime or Bonfire Night. The expectation this brings puts far greater pressure on football to deliver easily recognisable thrills than has ever before been the case. Rules have been tinkered with, defending has become ever more haphazard, goals have started to rain in like the seventies never happened. Arsene Wenger for one seems like a man who would happily dispense with the goalkeeper, if it meant he could deploy another tricksy ball-playing midfielder.

Last weekend I was talking to a rugby union fan. Like me he was in his late thirties. “The commercialisation of the game has changed it,” he said. “With TV and more paying spectators the emphasis is on entertainment. There’s no doubt rugby’s better to watch nowadays, but the funny thing is I sometimes find myself pining for a grim attritional forward battle that’s settled by a penalty. The sort of thing only a sup­porter with a really genuine understanding of the game would appreciate, you know?”

I didn’t actually, but I suspect one day I might.
 

 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

GOING ALL OUT ON ANGUISH IN EINDHOVEN

I spend most of what is laughably called my career sitting in a room on my own. Occasionally I get to go and spend time with other sports writers. This is always a treat. Because sportswriters are good company: they like talking,have an endless supply of funny stories, untoward gossip and cynical jokes. Probably the happiest time of my life was the three weeks I spent at the 1998 World Cup. Just thinking of it makes me laugh out loud at nothing in particular. Any road, this is about sort of watching Middlesbrough v Sevilla in the Uefa Cup Final.


   

I am sitting in the media centre at the Philips Stadion, Eindhoven. It is 22.10 local time and the place is deserted except for me, a couple of Cockney picture editors and the Dutch waiter. High up in a corner above the door a big TV screen is showing pictures of the game that is going on 50 yards away. Middlesbrough are trailing 1-0 to Sevilla. A free-kick from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink flies a few inches over the bar. The picture editor sitting next to me groans. “Jesus,” he says, “We don’t want extra time. Be a bloody nightmare.” He glances across at the Dutch waiter.
The Dutch waiter has white hair and a handlebar moustache. He has a key chain attached to his belt. The key opens a big fridge that stands against the same wall as the TV set. It is filled with bottles of Carlsberg. All day long journalists and photographers have been pulling on the door of the fridge trying to get at the beer inside. They have made imploring motions to the waiter indicating the advanced stages of dehydration but he has remained impassive. The fridge will stay locked until the final whistle. Then the waiter with the handlebar moustache will open it and quickly jump aside to avoid being crushed in the rush for free lager.
Images are popping up constantly on the screen of the picture editor’s computer, sent by wi-fi from photographers at pitch-side to be cropped and sorted and shipped out to the desks in London. “Tell the boys they’re going big on Boro anguish,” the picture editor growls down his mobile.

Within seconds the screen is reverberating with computerised thunks of incoming mail – Boro fans with their heads in their hands, chins sunk, faces glum. Steve McClaren biting his nails. “Oh nice,” the picture editor says. He selects a few, works on them, presses send. Picks up his mobile. “Got some lovely Boro anguish, for you, Jonno. Should be with you now. Speak later.”

Viduka’s shot is saved. The picture editor groans again. It’s all getting a bit tense. He has spent half an hour working on Boro anguish but if a goal goes in he will have to chuck it all out and start on Boro hope, or possibly Boro elation.

When Sevilla’s second goes in he punches the air, then turns to me apologetically because he knows I am a Boro fan. “No offence, mate,” he says. None taken. I am only in here because I am writing a colour piece and I have to file it midway through the second half. I am attending the greatest match in my club’s history and I am watching it on TV. But why complain? I got here free, sat in the ground for the first 45 minutes and got paid. And compared to this guy my working day is a doddle. Deadlines are flying towards him through cyberspace like a virtual meteor storm. He can’t be doing with uncertainty. He’d like results to be pre- arranged even more than the chairmen of the G‑14.

“Are there no sandwiches?” he asks the waiter. “There is still the buffet,” the waiter replies. “Oh, yeah the buffet,” the picture editor says scornfully. The buffet has been the cause of much caustic mirth during the evening. It offers hungry pressmen a selection of chicken satay, prawn crackers and sauerkraut. “What’s the vegetarian option?” a man from Five Live asks. “Cabbage and fucking crisps,” comes the reply.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, there’s the accommodation. Eindhoven has so few hotels that many of the reporters are staying in Düsseldorf. The official press party that came out with the team, meanwhile, have been housed at the local Centre Parc, a kind of eco-Butlins. “I’ve been woken up at six every morning by kids running past my window screaming because they’ve seen the big waterslide,” a reporter from one of the tabloids says. “Apparently it’s half-term in Holland,” somebody adds, yawning.


After the final whistle, when the fridge is open and the waiter is rushing about collecting empties, and Boro anguish is flying into and out of the picture editor’s computer as fast as he can process it, the tabloid man from the Centre Parc comes scurrying in with a happy smile. “Loved it when that fourth goal went in,” he says and he gives me a consoling pat because we have known each other for many a year and he is a nice guy. “McClaren’s first game in charge of Boro against Arsenal ends in a 4-0 defeat and now his last game with them ends the same way. It’s my opening par, isn’t it?”

Down the end of the room the Spanish press pack are hugging one another and yelping. The guy opposite us is dabbing the tears from his eyes, his colleague is blowing his nose, his shoulders shaking with convulsive sobs. When he catches sight of them the tabloid reporter affects disgust. “Fuck’s that about?” he says. If Boro had won maybe I'd have reacted the same way, but I don't think so. This is the media centre. It is not a place for emotion. You have to keep things in perspective here. After all, as the poet has written: “And when that last great scorer comes to mark against your name/It matters not who won, or lost/But whether you met your deadline.”


 

 

Saturday, 22 November 2014

HE BLEEDS FOOTBALL

Written in response to Mick McCarthy's appointment as Sunderland boss. I dust it off today because of recent events at Wigan involving Dave Whelan (who sounds so much like Hilda baker these days you half expect him to say 'He was sat sitting there, legs akimbo, proffering me his vital curriculum') and 'A Good Football Man' . Both chairman and manager appear to have worldviews that belong in a 1970s sitcom, incidentally.



There were excited scenes this week when the predictions of the PR wing of the Big Club were proved correct and A Football Man was unveiled as the Big Club's new manager. A Football Man succeeds A Man the Fans Could Never Really Relate To who left the club 10 days ago by mutual sacking.

Speaking for the first time from his freshly designated parking place, A Football Man, whose appointment has been an open secret with local bookmakers ever since his name appeared in the frame after he threw his hat into the ring following a six-month sabbatical to pursue unemployment and other opportunities outside the game, said he was delighted with his new role.
"Everyone knows that the Big Club is a real football club," he said. "The whole place lives, breathes and sweats football. It's 110% wall-to-wall solid football through and through from the carpet tiles to the tea lady's hair and the heavens beyond, and you can't beat that in mine or anyone else's book.

"Make no mistake, the job here is massive but that is what attracted me to the salary. The players' heads are down, their tails are between their legs and the crowd is on their backs. I don't make promises but one thing I will promise is that I will bring back effort, pride, character and high-stake card schools to this football club.

"It's a pressure-cooker situation. But I love a pressure cooker. I love a battle. I love a Chinese-style steamer pan. I love being up the creek in a hole with my back to the wall and a corner to turn and a mountain to climb. People who know me will tell you that I relish a challenge."

"He relishes a challenge," A Man Who Knows Him said. Asked what he thought The Man He Knows would bring to the challenge he relishes, A Man Who Knows Him added: "Football Man is a great motivator. He knows when to put his arm round your shoulder and when to kick your backside and when to put his arm round your backside and kick your shoulder and sometimes both at once, if he deems it necessary so to do."

"I don't suffer fools gladly, and that applies to myself as much as anybody," Football Man continued, "but I come in with no preconceived ideas - except about bringing back hanging to protect Britain's kiddies, obviously. All the players will start with a clean sheet but if they blot their copybook I will mark their card and they will be on their bikes showing me a clean pair of heels before their feet touch the ground".

This was believed to be a veiled reference to Want-away Striker, who earlier in the week issued a come-and-get-me plea in an attempt to end his English nightmare.

However, last night Want-away Striker moved to distance himself from himself, saying: "You shouldn't believe everything I say in the newspapers. Most of it is just paper talk and the rest is an old story I rehashed from mistranslated quotes that I made up a long time ago. What is happening Signor Capello? Did you lose my mobile number? No, I never said that."






Supporters of the Big Club had never warmed to A Man The Fans Could Never Really Relate To, but they were ecstatic about the appointment of Football Man. One excited season-ticket holder, who had once met a reporter at a party and given him his telephone number in case he ever wanted any plumbing done, said: "Although he has never actually won anything Football Man is a 24-carat winner. He will put a spring back in the face of this football club and smiles in a few bellies. Ever since he walked through the door there has been a buzz about the place, which is probably because he brought his beehives with him."


A widely respected former player, who now works for local radio in between pubs, concurred: "Except when it is all about results, the game is all about confidence. Football Man will get the dressing room behind him and he will get the dressing room bubbling again. And everyone in football knows that if you have a bubbling dressing room behind you and pulling in the same direction when it comes to turning things around, then that is half the battle. But half a battle does not win a war when you are in the trenches and Football Man will know that better than anyone, even me probably."

In all the elation surrounding Football Man's appointment one voice sounded a note of caution, however. An Embittered Ex-pro commented: "I wish him well, but nothing is as good as it was in my day and there are far too many foreigners. Did I tell you about that time Nozzer, Snozzer and me got in the bath with Miss Felixstowe Maplin's 1972?"

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

LEAVING ON A JET WHALE


After Harry Redknapp had criticised Adel Taarabt for being three stone overweight, a friend of mine said, 'Have you seen him? There's nothing on him. The way Redknapp was going on I was expecting somebody who looked like Mido.' These days players have the same body fat percentage as muesli. As my friend said, 'If he thinks Taarabt's tubby, what would he have made of Alan Foggon?'




 
When the corpulent Edwardian newspaper baron Lord Northcliffe encountered the skinny Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw in the West End one evening, he remarked: "Good God Shaw, you look like there is a famine in the land." The Irishman studied the considerable bulge of the Daily Mail proprietor's stomach and replied: "And your Lordship looks like the cause of it."

For some reason this exchange popped into my head when I read that Mido is on the verge of signing for Hull City. The last time I saw the Egypt striker he was playing for Middlesbrough and packing more padding than a Stanley Cup goaltender.

"He holds the ball up well," was the verdict of the bloke behind me. He was right, though it has to be said that Mido's ability in that area was greatly aided by the crater that rapidly developed around him whenever he stood still.

For Tigers fans of a certain vintage the sight of Mido's billowing waistline will bring back happy memories of the legendary Billy Whitehurst, a belligerent centre-forward with a stomach my friend Steve claimed "could host the Super Bowl". Steve is a Newcastle fan. In 1985 the Magpies broke their transfer record to sign Whitehurst from Hull. He failed to score in his first eleven games. The thought of him wearing the Mags' number nine jersey made Steve so hot under the collar it's a wonder his shirt never caught fire.
 
'Whitehurst is built like a brick shithouse and plays like one too,' Steve said, 'He turns as quick as an oil tanker. He has the first touch of a jack-hammer. Jesus Christ, what a line-up: Beardsley, Gascoigne and Billy bloody Whitehurst - Peter, Paul and Lardy.' 

Steve was not alone in his opinion. Whitehurst was reviled by supporters at St James' Park. When asked why he thought that was, the Yorkshire striker's reply was disarmingly frank, 'Because I were shit,' he said. He left for Oxford after flicking the Vs at his own supporters during a League Cup tie.
 
Big Billy was such a size that when he played against Leeds fans at Elland Road taunted him with chants of "Have you ever seen your dick?" Whitehurst, I should say, denied being overweight. "I weren't fat ... the kit was too small," he once explained after relating how Reading fans had sung "Ninety pies an hour" at him during his brief spell with the Royals. Since a typical Whitehurst anecdote begins: "I'd had an argument with this bloke who'd come at me with a big spanner. I'd got it off him and done him over the head and then his kneecap and fucked off," I reckon it is probably wisest not to argue the point.
 
 

Saturday, 15 November 2014

WHAT DOES THE FOX SAY?*

.


When I wrote The Far Corner a lot of people expected Carlisle United to feature in it. Carlisle is not in the North East,, but because BBC TV have always lumped our region in with Cumbria, it kind of feels as if it is. We shared Tom Kilgour and George House. Our news is their news, and vice versa.
There's also been a traditional link between football in the two regions. Penrith have been members of the Northern League - off and on - since 1948. Whitehaven and Celtic Nation (formerly Gifford Park) are also currently playing in the NL, while Carlisle United and Workington were both once fixtures in the semi-pro North Eastern League alongside the likes of Blyth Spartans, North Shields, Gateshead and Spennymoor United.

Well anyway, I'm going to Brunton Park today to stand in the paddock, so after all the self-justification here's a thing from the Guardian about Olga the Fox

On Saturday I took a German sportswriter to witness one of the more eccentric ceremonies of British sporting culture – the placing of Olga the stuffed fox on the centre spot at Brunton Park. My overseas visitor was suitably impressed, if a little baffled.

"It's because of John Peel," I explained. "John Peel?" he said. "I did not know he was from Carlisle."
"He wasn't actually from Carlisle," I said, "but he was from Cumbria and he was the most famous English huntsman of all times." The German was aghast. "He hunted animals, and.... killed them?" he said. "Yes," I said cheerily. "There's a song about it and everything."

It was only at this point, as I studied his shocked face that it dawned on me that the John Peel he was thinking of was not the man in his coat so gay that people kenned at the break of day, but the late and much‑beloved Liverpool‑supporting music-loving radio presenter. I realised that I had conjured a nightmare vision in the sportswriter's mind of those famously relaxed yet enthusiastic tones introducing his Radio One show with the words: "Later we've got a session by the Gang of Four and new singles from the Fall and Scritti Politti, but before that I'm going to set my dogs on this otter."

I did consider explaining the misunderstanding, obviously. But as Mickey Rourke famously observed: "Sometimes you just gotta roll the potato."

Olga the Fox was a much-loved feature of Carlisle's glory years of the 1970s when the Cumbrians briefly headed the English league with a team starring Joe Laidlaw, a busy, barrel‑chested inside-forward whose facial hair was so luxurious he looked permanently like he was on his way to a fancy dress party as Dr Zaius from Planet of the Apes. In those days a portly man in a blue-and-white suit who was known locally as Twinkletoes carried Olga out to the centre circle.

Strangely, this elegant routine was later dropped and Olga was stored away in an office with claims that a curse would be visited on anyone who moved her. Recently, however, she was brought back after a clamour by a public who plainly felt that any amount of pestilence, plague or famine will comfortably be offset by the chance to watch a stuffed animal sitting on the pitch for five minutes. And, let's face it, when you've survived Michael Knighton it's bound to give you a sense of resilience. The big hope for many of us is that the revival of Olga will inspire Bristol City to bring back the man in the smock with the dancing cockerel.

Carlisle is not the only sports club whose fans like to see a dead animal on the playing surface, I should add. In El Salvador the pelting of visiting goalkeepers with dead cats is routine, while fans of the Detroit Redwings of the NHL have been celebrating big wins by hurling octopi on to the ice for reasons that are too complex to go into here since the 1950s. In a game in 1995 Redwing supporters chucked 36 octopi over the Perspex barriers, the biggest of which weighed 30 pounds. The following season some Lake Michigan loon topped that by lobbing a 50-pounder on to the rink. Sadly, a few years ago NHL authorities banned Redwings staff from twirling the recovered octopi above their heads, a piece of interference which I feel certain was denounced as "political correctness gone mad" by callers to whatever the local equivalent of the Victoria Derbyshire Show is.



Though I dare say they'd be more disturbed by a giant squid, the sight of Olga has caused a certain disquiet among some visiting fans. When a friend of mine came up earlier in the season with Charlton Athletic he told me that the visiting Londoners had seen the parading of Olga as a sign of how primitive the north of England is. A personal view is that the Cumbrians don't really do enough in this direction. I think they should accentuate the primitive for psychological purposes. If I was in charge at Brunton Park I wouldn't have Olga brought on to the pitch – as she is these days – by somebody in a Disney-fied, child-friendly fox costume, but by a shaven-headed albino in silken robes covered in runic symbols, who'd follow the placing of the dead beast in the centre circle by daubing a broken crucifix on the forehead of rambunctious defender and local cult hero Richard Keogh in fresh blood. I'm sure this would unnerve opponents even more than the All Blacks' Haka.

*Hattee-hattee hattee-ho amongst other things, apparently.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

FIRST OF THE LITTLE FELLERS - NORTH KOREA ON TEESSIDE



I posted this a month or so ago, then cunningly contrived to delete it. So let’s pretend it’s a coda to the World Cup pieces.

This piece originally appeared in When Saturday Comes in October 2002. A week later I was at the Riverside for the Leeds game. The reception the North Korean players got from the crowd was warm and genuinely touching. Pak Do-Ik even recreated his goal in front of the North Stand.

The Game of Their Lives is a wonderful film that deserves wider distribution. If you get a chance to see it, then you should.

On Friday October 25 a worker from a North Korean textbook factory will return to the scene of his greatest triumph. Pak Do Ik has not been back to Middlesbrough since his goal set up what remains arguably the greatest shock in World Cup history, his country’s 1-0 win over Italy in 1966.

Ayresome Park is now a housing estate.  A communal garden stands on the Hol­gate End, where support for the North Korean out­siders was so vociferous it fused the press-box lights (“They’ve never cheered Middlesbrough like this for years,” bellowed BBC commentator Frank Bough who’d worked at ICI Billingham and played a couple of games for Synthonia). The area to the left of what was once the Holgate End penalty spot is somebody’s front lawn. But if you look very carefully you will see in among the neatly clipped grass the bronze cast of the imprint of a football boot – a sculpture by the artist Neville Gabie – that marks the spot from which North Korea’s No 7 struck his shot.

Pak Do Ik, along with the six other surviving mem­bers of that North Korea team, are coming to England for the first time since Eusebio’s barnstorming display at Goodison Park in the quarter-final removed them from the tournament. Daniel Gordon and Nicholas Bonner have spent the past five years making a wonderfully entertaining and moving documentary, The Game Of Their Lives, which tells the story of the North Korea team at the World Cup. They are the first West­erners to have been given permission to meet and film the players who caused such a sensation 36 years ago and then, apparently, disappeared without trace.

David Lacey, Bernard Gent and a clutch of the Mid­dlesbrough fans who idolised them also contribute, as do a couple of the vanquished Italians. Gianni Rivera, looking like Marcello Mastroianni's more successful elder brother, is still pleasingly grumpy about the whole business, dis­dainfully dismissing the North Koreans as an in­ferior team, though his former team-mate Sandro Mazzola is altogether more engaging, merrily chuckling as he recalls the Italians’ arrival back home to a hail of rotten fruit: “I didn’t get hit by anything. I was quick in those days!”

The film effectively juxtaposes archive commentary from the BBC and previously unseen footage shot by the North Korean documentary crew that accompanied the team throughout the World Cup, with film shot in the People’s Democratic Republic over the past few years. The latter varies from the spectacular, to the grim, to the downright eerie. Anyone who wonders what a team from east Asia would make of training at Central Avenue, Billingham should take a look at the playing surface of the pitch at the Ryongsong Cigarette Factory, a corrugated mud-patch on which we see The Tobacconists doing battle with The Paper Rollers under the watchful if slightly rheumy eye of Pak Do Ik’s old col­league, Yang Song Guk.
 


Most of the spookiness comes courtesy of Kim Il Sung, The Great Leader – a man so revered in North Korea that he remains head of state despite having been dead for eight years. At one point in the film the players in their medal-be­decked baggy suits and over-sized military uniforms gather in the shadow of an en­ormous statue of Kim Il Sung and recall their meeting with him before they left for England. Suddenly one of them, the half-back Rim Jung Song, blurts out “I wish he was still alive!” and bursts into tears, sending several other team members into convulsive sobs. It is a mom­ent at once touch­ing and yet unnerving, like watching an elderly German weeping over his fallen comrades.

Kim Il Sung loomed large in thoughts of the players throughout the World Cup. Recalling a period of self-doubt before the qualifying game against Australia, centre-half Rim Jung Song says: “Then I remembered what The Great Leader had said to us, ‘In order to be a good footballer you must run swiftly and pass the ball accurately.’” This suggests that had the bottom ever fallen out of the dictatorship market The Great Leader could have found gainful employment as an Asian Trev­or Brooking, yet such is the belief in his wisdom among North Koreans that this bland comment was enough to re-fire Rim Jung Song’s belief in himself. The team thrashed Australia 9-2 on aggregate.

Those games highlighted some of the problems surrounding the North Korean team. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the north had been com­pletely isolated. Since Australia and North Korea did not officially recognise each other, both games were played in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Similar troubles attended the trip to Britain. The foreign office thought of refusing visas, but that might have lead FIFA to move the World Cup, so instead they came up with a series of diplomatic compromises. The team would be called “North Kor­ea”, never the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; the flag could be flown, but na­tional anthems would be played only before the first match and the final – neither of which was expected to involve Pak Do Ik and his fellows.

 


And so the North Koreans arrived at London Airport and then trundled northwards on Bri­tish Rail singing their patriotic songs (“Carrying the nation’s honour on our shoulders” runs one) and signing autographs for ladies with beehive hair-dos and bird-wing spectacles. In Middlesbrough, the mayor, mindful of the fact that many locals might be mistrustful of the visitors with whom this country had so recently been at war (“We were the en­emy,” Pak Do Ik observes candidly) made a whole-heart­ed effort to ensure the North Kor­eans were given a warm welcome. It succeeded beyond all hopes. “It remains a riddle to me,” says Rim Jung Song. “The people of Middlesbrough supported us all the way through – I still don’t know why.”

One Boro fan who watched the games offers an ex­planation: “They were small for a start, which was a novelty. They were like a team of jockeys. But they mov­ed the ball around. They played good football.” The size thing (the average height of the team was just 5ft 5in) was indeed a factor. In their first game against the Soviet Union the North Koreans were knock­ed flying by their much larger opponents who, to use a technical term, kicked the shit out of them. As David Lacey says, it was the sight of small men being bullied that really awakened the sympathy of the crowd.

After that, North Korea became the home side at Ayre­some Park and 3,000 people travelled from Teesside to Liverpool to watch them take on Portugal, where they amazingly took a 3-0 lead after 24 minutes, only to succumb 5-3 thanks to the brilliance of Eusebio. “His shooting was so accurate and so powerful. I was just not good enough to save it,” recalls the goal­keeper Ri Chan Myong, with an honesty some Premiership net-minders might learn from.

In the end, though, the result was hardly the point: “The English people took us to their hearts and vice versa,” says Pak Do Ik. “I learned that football is not about winning. Wherever we go… playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace.” The North Koreans’ trip back to England this autumn should prove his point.
 

 

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

A CROWN FOR THE DENTIST - THE WORLD CUP IN THE NORTH EAST. PART THREE.




When the Soviet Union met Italy it was plain that a draw would suit both nations. Despite the handicap of a strangely lopsided line-up and the absence of Barison and Rivera, Italy looked a team capable of getting a 0-0 whenever they liked, which seemed to be most of the time. The ensuing game lived down to expectation, fuelling the prevailing view in County Durham that World Cup football was rubbish. As Michael Williams of the Sunday Telegraph summarised, 'you can see better games at Hartlepool in January'.

Uninspiring and joyless, the only genuine colour in the match was supplied by Yashin's red gloves. Mazzola missed an early chance when through on-on-one with the Black Octopus and then, after 57 tedious minutes, Chislenko swept past an oddly unfocused Faccheti and hammered a left-foot shot beyond Enrico Albertosi and into the Italian net. It was the last meaningful action of a game that matched the weather - dull. The Soviet Union were now through to the quarter-finals, but Italy coach Edmondo Fabbri was under pressure. Then again when was an Italy manager not under pressure, and besides the must win game was against North Korea, the 500-1 outsiders. What was there to worry about?

17,829 fans filed into Ayresome to watch what would tunr out to be one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. 'We did not think of winning, only of doing our best,' Pak Do-ik would recall. The Italians meanwhile didn't seem to think of much of anything. Assistant coach Ferrucio Valcareggi - who would succeed the ineffectual Fabbri and do rather better - had watched North Korea's previous two matches and reported that they were 'una squadra di Ridolini'  the Italian equivalent of Fred Karno's Army, or the Keystone Cops.

Faced with a team whose speed and stamina had impressed most observers (though plainly not Valcareggi), Fabbri bizarrely opted to pick several of his slowest defensive players, and the Bologna midfielder Giacomo Bulgarelli, who was struggling to shake off the effects of a knee injury suffered against Chile. In the early exchanges Marino Perani missed chances for Italy, but after 30 minutes Bulgarelli made the game's first truly telling action, launching himself into the back of Pak Seung-jin. The North Korean bounced straight back to his feet after the foul, but Bulgarelli lay on the ground writhing in agony, his knee ligaments torn.

Down to ten men (substitutions were still not allowed) against opponents who harried and chased remorselessly, Italy wilted. The Koreans were so ferociously committed that when Hang Bong-jin collided with a corner flag, it snapped in half.

Sensing an upset, the crowd in the Holgate End began to chant 'Korea. Korea'. On the 42nd minute the Italians failed to clear a cross. It was headed back into their penalty area. Pak Do-ik gathered the ball and drilled a low shot past Albertosi. In the second period Italy rallied, but Perani was wasteful again and no equaliser could be found.



Pak Do-ik became a hero on Teesside, his name passed down the generations alongside those of Wilf Mannion, George Hardwick and Brian Clough. The North Korean midfielder was a printer, but the Italian newspapers took to calling him 'the dentist' because of the pain he had inflicted.

Eliminated, humiliated, the Italy squad flew back to Genoa where they were greeted by an angry mob who pelted them with rotten fruit. Fabbri was fired, Francesco Janich, Perani and Barison never played for their country again. Shamed by the display, the Italian FA took drastic steps to address the problem and immediately banned the import of foreign players, scuppering a  £300,000 deal that was to have taken Eusebio to Roma. The ban would remain in place for almost a decade.

While the Italians ducked and recriminated, the North Koreans celebrated. Ubiquitous Middlesbrough director, Charles Amer invited the squad to his opulent home at Normanby Hall and after tea and scones presented each of the visitors with a Winston Churchill crown. That's 25p in the new money.

The barman at the St George Hotel confirmed that the North Korean players had let their hair down post-match. 'Oh aye,' he told the local press, 'They drank the place dry. There wasn't a bottle of ginger ale or soda water left.'

The North Korean sports minister was altogether less abstemious. At a dinner hosted by Middlesbrough FC to celebrate the victory, he waved aside all offers of wine and demanded Drambuie instead. According to Mr Amer, the politician polished off a bottle and a half during the meal 'And that's what I call drinking in any language'.

In the final game of the group, the Soviet Union, guaranteed top spot thanks to Italy's implosion, sent out virtually a second string against Chile. The South Americans would have gone through if they'd won, but their finishing was hopeless. Valery Porkujan of Dynamo Kiev got the winner and the USSR finished with a 100% record. Wearside was underwhelmed and only 16.027 turned up to watch.



In Sunderland there had been some trepidation that the quarter-final at Roker Park might have seen Brazil play Italy. Football wise this would have been a delicious prospect. Logistically it would have been a nightmare. Like Italy, Brazil had a huge band of travelling fans - there simply wouldn't have been enough spare bedrooms on Wearside to take them all. The Brazilians, however, had gone out unexpectedly. Nerves frayed from staying in a hotel they believed was haunted, morale dented by feeding on what they mistakenly thought was horsemeat, the Selecao were then kicked to pieces by Bulgaria and Portugal.

So instead of the Azzuri and Pele, Wearside had the Soviet Union versus the runners-up in Group 3, Hungary. A crowd of just over 22,000 paid to watch, less than half the number who had come to see Sunderland play West Ham earlier in the year. The Magyars were an attractive side built around the brilliance of Ferenc Bene and the elegant centre-forward-play of Florian Albert. To nullify the threat of these two skilful individuals the Soviets deployed a simple strategy - violence.

Despite the kicking meted out to them Hungary might still have won had they only had a better goalkeeper. While the USSR had the imperious Yashin, the Magyars had Jozsef Gelei, a keeper who more or less defined the word hapless. After just five minutes he dropped a Porkujan cross at the feet of Chislenko who toe-poked home. Gelei fell to his knees and appeared to offer a prayer to the Almighty. God, however, was clearly on the side of the big battalions. Two minutes into the second period the Hungary keeper fumbled a free kick, allowing Porkujan to double the Soviet's lead. Bene pulled one back late on, and, as the Hungarians pushed for an equaliser, Yashin saved thrillingly from Ferenc Sipos to rub salt into the losers' self-inflicted wounds.



For the North East that marked the end of the party - except in Ashington, obviously. There was talk that the World Cup had been a failure in the region, something both local organisers and the FA vehemently denied. Certainly the crowds had been poor at Roker Park compared to those for league matches (at Ayresome they were higher than the previous season's average) though that had been a feature of most World Cup group stages up to that point - in Chile four years earlier attendances at many games had been under 10,000.

The liason committee in Sunderland were undeterred by the criticism and pronounced the whole venture a huge success: 'The town has been put on the world map in an attractive manner and its reputation greatly enhanced' they concluded, which was as near to whooping and fist-pumping as people got in those days.

On Teesside the tournament genuinely had an impact, thanks to the North Koreans. A powerful bond was formed between the locals and the 'little men from north of the 38th Parallel' (as David Lacey called them in the Guardian)  and to this day the name of Middlesbrough is probably better known in Pyongyang than that of London, and certainly more respected.



Friday, 7 November 2014

BLACK OCTOPUS & MORNING CALM - THE WORLD CUP IN THE NORTH-EAST. PART TWO



The Italian team arrived at Teesside airport looking like they'd just stepped off the set of a Fellini movie. Under their crisp three-button blazers they wore mid-blue sports shirts with the collars buttoned to the top. Lightweight raincoats were draped elegantly around shoulders or across arms. The narrow, cobble-grey and brick-red streets of Sunderland and Middlesbrough seemed an unlikely backdrop for such exotic fauna. To add to the incongruity the Italians were billeted at the School of Agriculture in Houghall, Durham. Giacinto Facchetti and co woke each morning to the sound of the college cattle being herded to the milking parlour.

Perhaps it was the environment that unsettled Italy, for they seemed disoriented from the outset. The Italian league was the world's richest and most glamorous. Internazionale had won the European Cup in 1964 and 1965, Milan in 1963. Inter's Sandro Mazzola was a wiry, skilful striker with the pencil moustache of a gigolo; Gianni Rivera in midfield had the unruffled air of an aristocrat; and defenders Facchetti and Tarcisio Burgnich carried out their defensive duties with such effortlessness it was a surprise when they got mud on their knees. Yet the squad was inexperienced (only three had more than 20 caps, none more than 24) and manager Edmondo Fabbri had spent his career in the lower reaches of the Serie A, both as player and coach. He was no Vittorio Pozzo.

Italy's first match was against Chile. The Chileans were based on South Tyneside and trained at Redheugh Park, home of non-League Gateshead. They had qualified for the finals via a play-off against Ecuador. The team - entirely home-based - had one star, Luiz Eyzaguirre, a right-sided midfielder who was good enough to be selected for the Fifa Rest of the World side that played England at Wembley in 1963 to celebrate the FA's centenary - a team also featured Ferenc Puskas, Eusebio, Alfredo di Stefano, Djalma Santos, Gento and Jim Baxter.

For fans of the physical side of football the match was rich in promise - the last time the two teams had met was at the previous World Cup. The infamous Battle of Santiago was a game of such raw violence BBC commentator David Coleman couldn't quite decide whether to respond with outrage or gleeful laughter and ended up using a bit of both.

If there was any residual animosity between the two nations it did not show. Played in a steady drizzle, beneath a sky the colour of a tramp's vest, the game was totally devoid of blood or thunder.  The Azzuri appeared as uninspired as the weather, but won comfortably thanks to goals from Mazzola and Paolo Barison of Roma. 27,000 fans watched the match, as many of 5000 of them cheering on the victors.



The North Korean team (or 'the little men from the Land of the Morning Calm' as the correspondent of the Times dubbed them) had apparently lived for two years in military barracks, trained ceaselessly and. so it was rumoured, celibately. Their coach Myung Rye-hyun was a full colonel in the People's Army and adopted commando-style methods. The last time a team from South-east Asia had made the finals, South Korea in 1954, they had been let down by a lack of fitness. Myung was determined not to repeat that mistake.

The North Korean team set out with the blessing of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, who advised them to embrace the energetic spirit of Chollima, the winged horse of Korean legend and the name given to the Great Leader's post-war regeneration programme, of which the team were seen as a symbol. More worryingly for the players was the fact the autocrat had given strict instructions that they were not to lose all of their games. Given the nature of Kim Il-sung's regime it must have been clear to them he would not react to disappointment simply by throwing the odd teacup.

The Koreans were based in the comparative luxury at Teesside airport's St George Hotel (coincidentally owned by Middlesbrough director Charles Amer, who seemed to be doing rather well out of the World Cup). The team were a total mystery. The only person in England that summer who had seen them play was Fifa president Sir Stanley Rous. They had qualified by beating Australia after every other country in their eighteen team group had withdrawn in protest at the shortage of finals places available to teams from Asia and Africa. Both games against the Australians had been played in the neutral venue of Pnomh Penh, Cambodia. A combined attendance of 88,000 saw the North Koreans win 9-2 on aggregate. So far those 180 minutes were the sum total of their competitive football.

Some would have liked it kept that way. The Korean War had ended just 13 years before. The British Government didn't recognize North Korea. Nato had objected to the North Korean flag being flown at Wembley. There was consternation over what might happen if North Korea's national anthem ('The glory of a wise people/ Brought up on a culture of brilliance' and so forth) got an airing, so Fifa decreed that instead of being played before each match, anthems would only be played before the opening game. In the light of this frostiness, the North Koreans were understandably nervous about the sort of reception they might get. 'We though of the English as the enemy,' Pak Do-ik later recalled, 'but they welcomed us.'

That was particularly true at Ayresome Park, where supporters warmed to the little men in red and cheered their every move in the opening match against the Soviet Union. The North Koreans were certainly small (not one of the squad was more than 5' 8") and they were also freshfaced. At 19 Lee Chan-myung was the youngest goalkeeper ever to appear in the finals, and the average age of the squad was just 22. Against the vastly experienced and physically imposing USSR team, it really did look like men against boys. The Koreans fought hard and played with zip and vigour, but the Soviets were just too good for them. Eduard Malofeyev of Dinamo Minsk scored twice and the Azerbaijani, Anatoly Banishevsky added another in a comfortable 3-0 win.

Only 13,792 fans turned up at Ayresome for the Korean's next match, against Chile. The South Americans took the lead from the penalty spot after Oh Yoon-kyung felled Pedro Araya, but in the second-half the South-East Asian's fitness came to the fore and they took control of the game. Against the Soviets the North Korean's pace had been too frenzied and anxious. Now they slowed down just a little and started to pick out their passes better. In the 88th minute they grabbed an equaliser when Pak Seung-Jin fired in a volley from the edge of the box. Afterwards a massive British sailor in full naval rig ran onto the field, hugged various players and then lead them round the field in a lap of honour. The Koreans wept with a mixture of joy and relief - the Great Leader's command had been obeyed.




The Soviet Union, referred to more or less universally as 'The Russians', were a powerful side. Though they had a number of skilful and creative players including striker Igor Chislenko, their real strength was the defence. Organized by the mighty Albert 'Ivan the Terrible' Shesternyev, the back four had little compunction about dishing out punishment to opposing forwards (against West Germany in the semi-final they battered Helmut Haller so badly he pissed blood for days afterwards). Behind them was another member of the Fifa Rest of the World XI, 36-year-old Lev Yashin. Yashin was one of the game's true superstars, a keeper who, it was claimed, combined the agility of a monkey with the elasticity of a squid and the manners of a gentleman. The slim and handsome Yashin dressed all in black. He had saved over 100 penalties in his career. The Soviets called him 'The Black Octopus'.

Despite Yashin's charismatic presence the USSR, who had finished runners-up to Spain in the 1964 European Championships, were generally regarded as obdurate, dour and - surely term most commonly applied to sides from the Eastern Bloc - well drilled. Fittingly, given their dull reputation, the Soviets were housed at Grey College in Durham.



Wednesday, 5 November 2014

DOVE SI TROVE IL MOSTRO? - THE WORLD CUP IN THE NORTH EAST. PART ONE.


 
 
 
                                  Italy fans at Roker Park get some help from a local
 
In 2006 I wrote an extended essay for 1966 Uncovered, Peter Robinson and Doug Cheeseman's beautifully illustrated book about the 1966 World Cup. This is an edited version of the section covering the North East. The first part deals with the build up to the tournament. A couple of further pieces on the games will follow. 

If the World Cup of 1966 had bothered to have a slogan it might have been: “The Football World Cup – It’s Here If You Want It”. That at least is the impression you get looking back from our own hype-obsessed era.

England, it goes without saying, was a very different place in those days. This was the country featured in Don’t Look Back, D A Pennebaker’s documentary account of Bob Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, a place where even the coolest pop music was presided over by men with handlebar moustaches and regimental ties, and the technical side of things was in the slightly bewildered hands of a couple of elderly blokes in brown overalls who would attempt to fix just about anything with garden twine and fish-scented glue. 

It should be noted that in Britain – the home nations having studiously avoided pre-War tournaments for fear of what might occur to our footballers if they came into prolonged contact with foreigners - the Mundial wasn’t quite the big deal it has since become. Indeed, when Dennis Howell, the newly appointed Minister with Special Responsibility for Sport, raised the topic with Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson he found himself having to explaini what the World Cup was.

The wartime generation were not much given to hyperbole and football was still a game. When Wilson eventually understood the importance of the tournament he allocated £500,000 to fund necessary ground improvements - a sum considered so outlandish by senior civil servants some suggested that when the public learned of it they would bring down the government in protest.
 
 
                             BAOC Air Hostesses model the kits of the competing nations

 

The draw for the World Cup finals took place at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington on January 6th 1966. It was televised across Western Europe and in all the participating nations with the exception of North Korea. Of the 800 people in attendance, 400 were reporters. The official FA report would later summarise event in characteristic Little Englanders terms: ‘the babble of foreign tongues from the radio commentators in the gallery caused some inconvenience’.

Fifa had implemented a complex system of seedings that effectively separated not only the two favourites - the holders, Brazil and the hosts – but also ensured that South American countries wouldn’t meet in the group stages and that ‘Latin European countries’ would likewise be kept apart. By such means, the organisers hoped to give each four-team group a whiff of the exotic and ‘all-round spectator appeal’.
 
For Sunderland and Middlesbrough, hosts of Group Four, this meant Italy, Chile, the Soviet Union and North Korea. An interesting mixture culturally for sure, but it seemed no more likely to set the pulses of local football fans racing than a mug of Camp coffee.

Things would turn out a little differently, of course, but initially there was a definite sense of anti-climax. This was a pity becasue in the north-east more than anywhere else in England, the local organisers had truly embraced the World Cup. In Sunderland - HQ of the North East liaison committee - they had been preparing for an influx of foreign visitors since February 1965. The committee had printed 21,450 copies of an information brochure on local amenities, 3000 of which were optimistically sent to the Italian FA.

Nobody in the North East knew quite what to expect. The committee was not sure if it was planning for ‘1,000 overseas fans, or 10,000’. In the end the numbers fell short of both estimates with official visitor numbers put at 400 Italians, 200 Russians and 50 Chileans. The only tourists from North Korea were the squad and officials.

Despite the low turnout, there was - bizarrely - still a shortage of accommodation. When a sudden influx of British-based Italians overran local hotels and boarding houses the committee appealed on BBC North news for people with spare bedrooms to come forward: 135 gallant citizens responded and the crisis was averted.

Further problems were caused by the need for visitors centres. Initially the committee had thought to use the double-decker bus polling stations that toured Durham pit villages during elections. However County Durham police – who clearly regarded the World Cup as a bloody nuisance – vetoed this idea unless a heavy licensing fee was paid. Considering the price prohibitive, the committee instead set up the visitors centres in temporary huts.
 
 
 

 

Interpreters staffed the visitor centres. On match days they were frequently called in by local shopkeepers to sort out problems. On one occasion a group of Italian visitors in Seaburn ‘grew agitated’ when their requests to see the Loch Ness Monster were met with blank looks, while on another a party of four entered a restaurant in Sunderland and, after a brief perusal of the menu, asked the owner to allow them into the kitchen, so they could cook their own dinner.

In Sunderland local shopkeepers were actively encouraged to give their window displays ‘a festive air’, and 300 sets of souvenir glasses engraved with ‘Sunderland scenes’ were purchased as gifts for the visiting teams and officials. At the end of the tournament, the committee reported sadly, they still had 99 sets left.

The official reception for the visiting squads held at Sunderland on 14th July was a disappointing affair. The managers of Italy, the Soviet Union and North Korea denied their players permission to attend. A couple of hundred offcials did arrive but ‘language difficulties limited the circulation of the guests amongst the townspeople’.

The sense of anti-climax was also felt at Seaham Hall where a special overseas visitors' club had been established. Sadly uptake of the free membership was limited. Organizers reported that things might have been different had it not been for the Cold War, many Soviet visitors arriving only to turn around and leave when they were asked to fill out a membership form. ‘We explained that it was merely a formality, but suspicions about our motives could not often be allayed,’ the committee recorded.

The authorities had actually gone out of their way to make the visitors from behind the Iron Curtain welcome. The Empire Theatre in Sunderland engaged the services of the Georgian State Dance Company for the duration of the tournament. The troupe proved a massive hit, drawing an aggregate audience of 22,000 people – more than watched many of the football matches.
 
 

 

Teesside too offered an international Eisteddfod. For visitors whose taste didn’t run to folk dancing and traditional songs, the Club Fiesta in Stockton boasted an ‘international cabaret’ consisting of Tommy Cooper and Bob Monkhouse. Military bands, greyhound racing, cricket matches, the occasional ‘Gypsy ensemble’ and an open-air sculpture park completed the programme of World Cup events along the Tees.
 
That Middlesbrough was hosting World Cup matches at all was something a coup for the town. Newcastle, the more obvious choice as a venue, had been passed over. Newcastle United were locked in an acrimonious dispute with the council over the lease of St James’ Park and were reluctant to carry out the remedial building work required.

It was a welcome boost for Middlesbrough who had just been relegated to Division Three for the first time in their history. The Ayresome Park pitch was a byword for grassy luxury and widely regarded as the best in England, but the ground itself was in poor condition. Indeed, one Boro director, Charles Amer, described it as being in ‘a state of total disrepair’. Luckily Mr Amer owned a building firm and they were more than happy to take on the task of bringing the dilapidated old ground up to the mark.  Barriers on the terraces were strengthened, new seating installed in several stands and a hospitality suite for Fifa dignitaries was shoehorned into an area under the North Stand despite ‘some trouble with the sewers’.
 
 

Saturday, 1 November 2014

THE POCKET HARDMEN

At one time people would say of  music 'You really have to listen to it when you've taken acid/mushrooms. You don't really get it unless you've taken acid/mushrooms'.

 I feel the same way about football and sweets. If you ever watched Adam Boyd at Victoria Park while fizzing on Haribos you'll know what I'm talking about. It was all too beautiful.






On Monday I had a premonition of my death. I was at Brunton Park when it came to me. I saw myself falling to my knees, clutching my throat and turning as pale as Dimitar Berbatov, while all around me men in watch caps and warm-up coats ignored my final, thrashing moments in favour of howling abuse at the match officials for failing to send off any opposition players.

Later, sitting on the eastbound train surrounded by Sheffield United fans talking in their hand-pulled, cask-conditioned accents (If real ale could talk it would sound like John Shuttleworth), I pictured friends receiving the news and murmuring "… choked to death on a midget gem while stood in the rain at a lower division football ground surrounded by the scent of last night's beer and blokes yelling: 'Away, referee, man. Are your cards wedged up your arse?' Yes, it's sad, but I think it's how he would have wanted to go."

It wasn't the first time I've nearly suffered death by midget gem at a football match. In fact it usually occurs at least twice a season. For those of you unfamiliar with the midget gem I should explain that it is a small sweet of roughly the same size and texture as Sherpa Tensing's toe calluses. It is made from some sort of fruit-inspired gum, but is, intriguingly, much harder than its boastful rival the American hard gum, probably because it is British. The obvious way to cheat my fate is to give up eating the warty little sweets. But to me they are inextricably linked with what Pelé once dubbed "My core business going forward". And what would I chew on during matches instead?

Clearly things have changed in the confectionary industry. These days the retailing of bonbons is no longer the sole preserve of elderly men with Mr Whippy hairdos, fastidiously clean hands and the general air of someone who is one step away from having neighbours describe him as "a quiet man who kept himself to himself" to a huddle of tabloid reporters. As a result there is now a huge range of choice. Or is there?

People constantly assure me that middle-class tossers now overrun football. Yet while there may be grounds in the south-east where the chanting of the faithful is drowned out by people discussing the catchment areas of local secondary schools, and rival firms have prearranged face-offs in the side streets to see who has the most over-qualified eastern European au pair girl, such things have yet to permeate the banlieu of the Metropolitan Empire I frequent. So while it may be permissible in north or west London to spend the game nibbling on Piedmontese pralines or sucking Portuguese verbena pastilles, in my goitred neck of the woods even the furtive consumption of a Lindor is likely to be regarded with suspicion.

Besides, I grew up watching football in the 70s. Back then, the terraces were no place for Turkish delight. Or indeed delight of any description. My formative football years were spent in the Bob End at Ayresome Park, surrounded by men brutalised by careers in the chemical plants and fabricating sheds and leisure hours spent watching Dickie Rooks. It was not an environment that encouraged dolly mixtures.



Most of the men in the Bob End were gnarled combat veterans who favoured masculine sweets such as Payne's Army and Navy Drops, the taste of which evoked fond memories of mustard gas attacks on the western front. Once, aged of eight or nine, on a freezing winter's night in which the surrounding phalanx cackled in bitter glee at the sight of Huddersfield Town's youthful centre‑forward Frank Worthington, whose long hair they took as a signal of the approach of Armageddon, I made the signal mistake of taking a sip of hot Oxo while I still had a Victory V lozenge in my mouth. It was the sort of juxtaposition of contrasting flavours that may inspire the radical TV food scientists but even four decades later the recollection still makes me gag.

Shortly afterwards I settled on midget gems as my football pocket sweet of choice. They were colourful and sweet, but had a carbuncle-like recalcitrance that rebuffed any accusations of aesthetic affectation. I have stuck to them, and they have stuck to my teeth, ever since.

I did, I admit, briefly experiment with Haribo Tangtastics, but the damn things are just too edible. I'd get through a large bag in the first half-hour of the match. That's a lot of sugar to absorb, even for a man of my size. By the interval I'd be twitching like Peter Crouch with his finger in a socket. The midget gem, by contrast, is a tough little beast that has to be worked on. Even putting six in your mouth at a time and chewing away as ferociously as Mike Tyson on a stray ear is unlikely to see off more than a couple of dozen per period. They are the football sweet nonpareil as far as I am concerned, and I intend to go on eating them at matches even if it kills me. Which it likely will.