Saturday, 28 February 2015

UNCLEAN SLATES


Many years before I wrote The Far Corner I was working in London as a grill chef. One of the washers-up was an elderly man with a dancehall gigolo moustache and the sour scent of alcoholism. He lived in a Salvation Army Hostel off the Whitechapel Road. He'd come originally from Tow Law. Raised during the Depression, he spoke bitterly of the means test men coming into the house with a piece of chalk and marking with Xs all the possessions that must be sold before any benefits would be paid, and movingly of bike rides through the high meadows of the North Pennines on warm summer nights, when the foundrymen and the miners helped farmers with harvest in return for a feed and a night in a barn. He claimed to have been an apprentice at Hartlepools United back when the formidable Bill Norman was boss.

He said, “One day at training, it's freezing cold and blowing a bloody blizzard. We were all grumbling about the cold,” he said, “And Bill got really pissed off with us. He says, “It’s not bloody cold. It’s not bloody cold at all.” And he suddenly stripped off all his clothes and rolled about in the snow stark bollock naked, yelling at us to toughen up. He must have been bloody crackers..”

The washer-up didn't get offered terms, but given what he'd seen maybe he thought it a lucky escape.

In the summer I had an interesting chat with a retired professional footballer. He’d grown up in Ashington, and started out at Port Vale when Stanley Matthews was the manager. After that the old pro had spent most of his career in North East non-League football.

Over the years he’d played for many different managers, but one in particular stuck in his mind. “I joined a Northern League club not far from here," he said, “I’ll never forget the first game. The manager’s pre-match team talk goes like this. He takes an egg and he holds it up in front of us. He says, “This here, this is the opposition”. He put the egg down on the floor of the dressing room. Then he goes outside. He come back in a few seconds later with this bloody great slab of slate. He says, “And this here, this is you”. And he lifted this bloody slate up above his head and slams it down on top of the egg. “Now,” he shouts, “I want you to go out there and splatter the fuckers”.

The retired player raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t stop there long”, he said.

 

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

BROKEN DREAMS FOR GOALPOSTS

A friend of mine's son plays for a local U-11s team. He came home early from a game a few months back. 'What happened?' his mother asked.
'Game was abandoned, The mam of one of the other team invaded the pitch because she didn't like the referee.'
'Did she attack him?'
'She tried to, but she couldn't run very fast because she was expecting a baby.'

Here's something I wrote for the Boro programme on a similar subject.


At the start of the season a friend of mine was put in charge of his local under-tens football team. My friend has no coaching qualifications but he does drive a Chrysler people carrier, which is much more important when you’ve got to get eleven kids halfway across Northumberland on a Sunday morning.

For decades my friend has been planning to revolutionise grassroots football in the UK with his innovative tactical schemes, now at last his chance had come. His radical formation for the U-10s was based on two wingers and a pair of deep lying attackers breaking late into the penalty area. Five minutes into the first match he recognised a flaw in his master plan: the wingers couldn’t kick the ball hard enough to get it into the box.

My friend had to make immediate changes from the sidelines. Unable to effect anything too complex he was forced to fall back on the tried and trusted methods of primary school football coaches the length and breadth of Britain: telling the players to hoof it as far as they could in the direction of the opposition goal and then all run after it yelping like wild dogs. The thought that he was behind such an affront to the beautiful game was very upsetting to a football purist such as my friend.

Even more disturbing for him was the opposition coach. At the lower levels of football you often find people in charge of teams whose sole qualification for the job – apart from owning a vehicle that can carry eight bairns - is their ability to bellow a few likely sounding phrases at a volume that drowns out the sound of passing juggernauts. “Channels, channels!” they roar. Or “Tuck in, tuck in!” Or “Work the line, work the line!”

In my friend’s case the opposition coach had clearly combined the study of the Big Boys Book Of Shouty Football Phrases with a regular visits to a relationship counsellor because he kept urging his players to talk to one another. “It’s too quiet,” he beseeched, “We’re not talking. Let’s talk to one another, lads”.

My friend found this increasingly irritating. After an initial attempt to get his point across by counter-attacking with shouts of “Let’s suppress it! Let’s bottle it up!” he finally cracked.

“We’ve gone silent. Communicate with one another. Communicate,” the opposition coach shouted. My friend stomped over to him. “They’re English. They’re male,” he barked, “They’re not supposed to bloody communicate”.
 
He has now been relieved of his duties, replaced by a lady who runs a mini-bus hire company. All-in-all I think it’s probably for the best.

 


 

 

 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

BYE BYE BOYDY (ENCORE)


The Guardian has posted the piece I wrote about Adam Boyd for issue 15 of The Blizzard on their website.

You can read it here:

http://www.theguardian.com/football/football-league-blog/2015/feb/24/adam-boyd-marco-van-basten-hartlepool?CMP=share_btn_tw

Or better still, you can buy The Blizzard and read it there alongside a lot of really great stuff by George Caulkin, Michael Walker, Jonathon Wilson and others.

https://www.theblizzard.co.uk/ 

                                                             

Saturday, 21 February 2015

BILLY ROW TO BARRANQUILLA


I'm going to Crook Town v Benfield today. I’m hoping won’t be my last ever trip to the Millfield Ground (or mimic my first - the game was snowed off). Sadly the way the Black and Ambers’ fortunes have nosedived means I can't be certain. Currently bottom of Northern league Division One with a goal difference of -108, Crook are in dire trouble financially too. For the past three years there has been talk of selling off Millfield to a supermarket and moving the club to a multi-sports venue in Peases West. This proposal is apparently supported by the majority of people in the town. The news that nowadays shopping is more important than football – even in County Durham - is probably no news at all, but it is hardly calculated to raise the spirits either. Every time I see that Asda in Ashington I feel like heaving.

Probably I'm over sensitive. Doubtless the fate of Crook is an irrelevance in the glitzy world of Richard Scudamore and we should just look the other way - staring in awe at Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s tattoos or whatever vapid Champions' League web-splatter we are being cattle-prodded to admire this hour - as another historic non-League football club wanders off, unanchored from memory like a bewildered pensioner in the Metro Centre.

Whatever.

Here’s something about happier times that I wrote for Back Pass.
 
 

Watching the visitors from England demolish Barcelona 4-2, the Catalan journalists were in no doubt they were witnessing something special. ‘This is the best side seen here since football has been played,’ wrote one. The team in question? Crook Town, naturally.

That was in 1913. The amateur side from West Durham had just finished third in the Northern League, where regular opponents included Leadgate Park and Grangetown Athletic. Little wonder this triumph in the more exotic climes of Catalonia became part of Durham football folklore.

The man responsible for organising Crook’s trip to the Iberian Peninsula was Jack Greenwell. A miner’s son from Peases West, Greenwell had debuted for Crook as a teenager, had an excursion to Turin with West Auckland when they won ‘the first World Cup’ in 1909, and three years later – at a time when most North-Easterners regarded a trip to London as a dark and fearful journey into the unknown - left for Spain to play professionally at the newly formed Barcelona. A skilful midfielder, Greenwell made 88 appearances for Barca, hit ten goals and picked up two Campionat de Catalunya medals. Photos show a rugged, stocky man with the sort of tightly crinkled hair – running like plough furrows across his pate - that nobody seems to have anymore.

Crook's trip to Spain was part of Barcelona-founder Hans Kamper's efforts to increase football’s popularity in the city. His efforts - and those of his English partners the Witty brothers - didn’t go down well with the local middle-class, however. The Catalan bourgeoisie found the sight of men running around in shorts 'morally reprehensible' and supported only those sports such as riding, fencing and tennis that were performed in long trousers. Enraged by the menace to Catalonian youth posed by the fruity Anglo-Saxon game, they reacted violently to the news that King Afonso XIII planned to come and watch the English visitors at the Carrer Industria. Death threats were issued. The King was a big fan and patron of the game (all those Reals in La Liga were named in his honour) but having already dodged several anarchist bombs, he decided to stay in Madrid. The game went on without him.

The Crook team remained stoic throughout the furore. When the game kicked off one thing did perplex them though: Barcelona’s habit of swapping one player for another in the middle of a game. Substitutions, already a feature in Spain, would not become the norm in England for over fifty years. Following the opening 4-2 win, Crook played Barcelona twice more: drawing 1-1 and 2-2. They left with happy memories and an historic pennant that hangs in the Millfield clubhouse.

The Black & Ambers (or ‘The Crooks’ as the Pathe News commentator insisted on referring to them during their 1954 FA Amateur Cup Final marathon with Bishop Auckland) returned to Barcelona twice more, in 1921 and 1922. By then Spanish football had improved and the moral panic had ended. The side from Millfield played Barca seven times more: losing four, drawing two and winning the final encounter 3-1. It is rumoured that in one of the games the great Spanish goalkeeper, chain-smoking dandy, Ricardo Zamora guested in goal for the visitors. If the results didn’t mimic the triumph of the first trip, for a team of amateurs from a town with a population of fewer than 10,000 it's still not a bad record against the four time European Club Champions.

 

The remarkable Jack Greenwell was coach of Barca for both the latter series of matches. He'd taken charge in 1917 and remained so for seven seasons, longer than anyone in the club’s history apart from Johan Cruyff. In that time he won two Copa del Rey and five Catalan championships. He returned for a second spell in the 1930s and won another Catalan title, but his last season in charge was so poor he wrote to the club president asking that his annual bonus and that of his players be reduced.  I expect Louis Van Gaal will do something similar in May if no silverware is won.

Greenwell also helped prepare the Spain national team for the 1920 Olympics and coached Sporting Gijon, Espanyol and Valencia. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War saw him depart for Turkey. From Istanbul Greenwell somehow found his way to Lima. He won the Peruvian title with Universitario, was assistant manager to the Peruvian national team at the Berlin Olympics (The South Americans were disqualified after refusing to replay a controversial match with Nazi-favoured Austria) and then took charge of them for the 1939 South American Championships, which they won. Following that triumph Greenwell took up a post in Barranquilla, Colombia. Sadly his wife Doris refused to travel with him, staying put with their children in Lima.

Separated from his family, Greenwell died of a heart attack in Bogota aged 58, a few days after the team he was coaching at the time, Santa Fe, had won a league match 10-3.  One of the most successful and influential of all expatriate English coaches, Greenwell is buried in the Colombian capital, though no one seems quite to know where.

 

 

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

KING TUT AND THE PROSTATE GENERATION

At the FA Vase 5th Round tie between North Shields and Phoenix Sports a couple of weeks back the stadium announcer called on the crowd to 'Please calm down, please.' This seemed an unlikely request at any Northern League ground and caused my companions and I much mirth ( later it emerged that the request had come in response to some of the Robins' hardcore who had chosen to celebrate the sending off of one of the visitors - a player so filled with fury he appeared perpetually on the point of bursting - by hurling a fish onto the pitch, perhaps in some homage to The Godfather).

Coupled with a letter in the estimable Northern Ventures Northern Gains in which the writer complained that the noise of barking dogs during an earlier match at Shields had left him with a splitting headache, this sparked recollections of an encounter at The Riverside back in the days of Steve McClaren....




A few years ago a friend of mine came over from California. Determined to show him all the cultural riches the north-east has to offer I bought tickets in the West Stand at the Riverside Stadium, right above the half-way line. Two minutes in to a game of such excruciating dullness that at the final whistle police had to prise my fingers from my knees, I felt a tapping on my shoulder. I looked around. The tapper was an elderly man with tufts of hair sprouting from his ears and a nose as richly veined with blue as a ripe Gorgonzola. He was one of those veterans of the posh seats who attends football with a rug which he wraps around his knees, and a large tartan thermos flask containing the sort of vegetable broth that smells like a school gym after the year tens have done an hour of circuit training in it. “Can you stop leaning forward,” the tapper said.

A couple of minutes later Boro created a minor kafuffle in the opposition penalty area. The tapping came again. “Sit down,” the tapper said. “I’m not standing up,” I replied. “You are rising” the tapper said. “I am not rising,” I said, “If I was rising my buttocks would be out of the seat, and my buttocks are not out of the seat. They are on the seat. Here, you can try and stick your hands under them if you want”. This offer silenced the tapper, momentarily.

Ninety seconds passed. A corner kick arrived. Tap-tap-tap. “I’m not standing up and I am not rising, nor even in the process of thinking about rising,” I said. “Mebbe not,” the tapper said, fixing me with the look of somebody who has sprung a carefully constructed trap on a destructive rodent, “but you are definitely craning”. He had me there, and he knew it. I had craned. I was guilty of crane-age.

As I so often do in times of crisis I sought sanctuary in sarcasm, “I suppose,” I said, “You would prefer it if I crouched?” “No, there’s no need to do that,” the tapper said seriously, “But you could mebbe slouch a bit further down in your seat in future”.

About a month after this encounter, Middlesbrough fans in the south-east corner of the stadium received a letter from the chief safety officer asking them to keep the noise down. “I am receiving more and more complaints from our fans…about both the persistent standing and the constant noise coming from the back of this stand,” Sue Watson’s letter read, “Please stop, make as much noise as you like when we score, but this constant noise is driving some fans mad”.

What has happened in block 53a is that a group of fans calling themselves Red Faction have moved in with an intention of creating a more supportive atmosphere for the team – beyond, presumably, the traditional rhythmic syncopated tutting that I used to so enjoy in the Bob End when I was a nipper - and have fallen foul of the long term denizens of block 53a, who object to their habit of banging on the plastic sheeting at the back of the stand. The letter makes no mention of leaning, rising or craning, but surely a total ban on such anti-social activities can’t be far away.

 

Many readers may feel that if you are going to complain about crowd noise at a football match, then writing an angry letter about the fact that your view of the pitch has been severely impeded by twenty-two men in shorts who insist on running about all over it during the entire length of your visit is not far away.

The problem is surely exacerbated by the fact that the average age of those attending football matches is rising (or at least craning) ever upwards. Soon most of the grounds will be more or less entirely in the knobbly hands of the prostate generation. It will alter the game irrevocably. For a start off the interval will have to be extended to an hour just so we all have time to piddle.

 
 

Saturday, 14 February 2015

THE AGONY AND THE ALCOHOL - BOBBY MURDOCH





In the Fulwell End one Boxing Day the air was blue with bad language and the polyester static of a thousand Yuletide novelty jumpers. Most of the bad language was directed at Alec Chamberlain in the Sunderland goal. The former-Luton keeper was a decent shot-stopper and an all-round good fellow, but he came out for crosses with the trepidation of a man entering shark-infested waters on a leaky li-lo. Ironic cheers went up whenever he caught a centre. “Two in a row. Must be a record,” wags crowed as he gathered a corner. Late in the first half an opposition forward toe-ended the ball goalwards. Chamberlain went down to collect it so slowly he appeared to be defying the laws of gravity, the shot trickled under him and, almost apologetically, into the net. 

“Jesus bloody Christ,” A big man standing near me bellowed in a voice that would have chipped paint off pillar box, “This get’s not worth half what we paid for him.”

“I thought we got him on a free” somebody ventured.

“Aye,” the big man growled, “That’s what I’m saying, isn't it?”

A free transfer used to be the final ignominy for a player, a sign that times wing’ed chariot had finally caught up with him and run over his foot. “They’ve let him go on a free” fans would say scornfully. It was the football equivalent of being sent to the glue factory. “Any new signings?” you’d ask your friends when you got back from your summer holidays and they’d shake their heads bitterly, “Nowt but free transfers”.

Not that it always worked out badly. One of the best players I ever saw arrived at Middlesbrough on a free from Celtic in September 1973. By that stage of his career Bobby Murdoch was on the downward slope, his body and face so lacking definition every photo of him in a Boro shirt appears to be slightly out of focus.

Jack Charlton had just taken over as Boro boss, a new boy in football management. He believed Jock Stein had done him a favour by gifting him a European Cup winner. In truth, Stein had done the deal not for Big Jack's benefit, but for Murdoch's. The midfielder's ankle was so bollocksed his boss believed he'd never play again. The signing on fee and the contract at Boro would be a nice little pay-off for a loyal servant, one that wouldn't cost Celtic a penny. Stein's avuncularity hid a steely shrewdness, just as Charlton's brash belligerence masked a sentimental heart. Informed of Stein's intent two decades later Charlton winced, 'Are you sure? I wish you hadn't told me that. Jock was such a lovely fella...'

Stein had fooled the Englishman, but he'd misjudged Murdoch's resolve as well. Instead of picking up a wage while idling on the treatment table, the midfielder played on. His ankle puffed up so badly he'd sit with it in a bucket of ice for twenty minutes before kick-off, allegedly fighting off the effects of the cold by swigging gin. The primitive treatment was repeated at half-time.

Despite the agony and the alcohol, Murdoch retained a precise grasp of that singular relationship between space and time that lies at the heart of all ballgames. He still had the talent to exploit it,too. His passing was unspectacular, but always thoughtful, accurate, probing. It called to mind AJ Liebling’s description of light heavyweight Archie Moore’s punching: “sharp tangential prods at the blocky thorax and abdomen, like a sculptor seeking the grain of a rock or a physician asking where it hurts”.



That first season Middlesbrough easily won the Division Two title, beating Millwall 1-0 at Ayresome Park along the way. Eamon Dunphy was playing for the visitors, recording his thoughts in a diary that became Only A Game?:

'Bobby Murdoch in midfield gives them an aura of calm, presenting an illusion that they are impregnable. That is his great ability - to be composed on the ball. He isn’t fast, he isn’t strong in the tackle, he doesn’t hit a great long ball, he can't beat a man. But what he is great at, when everyone else in this division is going at ninety-miles-an-hour, hitting impossible balls, trying to squeeze things into spaces when it just isn’t on, is being composed, and slowing it down. Knocking the fifteen or twenty yard ball, getting it back and knocking it again. For half an hour I ran myself ragged jockeying Murdoch, who would push it to Souness or Foggon at the moment I lunged, committed to yet another fruitless tackle.'

The great US gridiron coach Vince Lombardi believed that all success stemmed from the faultless execution of simple schemes. That is true of sport, of art, of life. There was nothing extravagant about the talent of Bobby Murdoch, no eye-catching flourishes, or YouTube friendly tricks, yet in the flawless precision of his craft there lay a quiet and unfathomable genius.

Nobody at Ayresome Park ever complained about the free signing of Bobby Murdoch. Well, not more than a dozen times a game at any rate, which pretty much amounted to an Oscar on Teesside in those days.

 

 

 

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

EXPLETIVES UNDELEATED




The Northern League takes a dim view of what is sometimes called 'industrial language'. Quite right too. After all who wants to spend all afternoon listening to some goon in a Superdry jacket bellowing that the ref is a Bessemer converter?

Sometimes things go a little too far, though. At Brunton Park a couple of Saturdays ago stewards moved in when a middle-aged women with the solid, matronly build of a prize Jersey and the bellow to match got to her feet and yelled that Carlisle’s attempts to defend a corner were “bloody crap”.

The men in the high visibility jackets and the hands free radio mics didn’t take action immediately, it should be said. There was a series of exchanged glances, shrugs and hand waving first. You can see why that would be. It’s very hard to judge what constitutes abusive language these days. Veteran commentators assure us that in days of yore a cry of “bloody crap” would have caused outrage across the land: maids fainting; horses bolting, small children covering their ears and singing psalms and so forth. But that was in a different age, one of more delicate sensibilities, before Woodstock, the Permissive Society and the feminists’ vigorous campaign to gain women the right to fart.

Eventually two stewards came up and sat down near to the “bloody crap” lady. The message was clear: you’re walking a thin line, missus. If she’d attempted an expletive escalation you can bet they’d have been all over her like a fungal infection.

Some will feel that this is all for the good. They will say that a football ground is not a fit place for calling people names; that if you want to hurl abuse at someone anonymously you should do so in a proper environment - the Internet. For some, however, the hi-tech excitement of being able to insult people on five continents without ever leaving your Mum’s house is just not authentic. They like their slagging live and unplugged.

My sympathy is with them. This is because I grew up watching football at Ayresome Park, a place where even the subs booed the team off at half-time. To me loud and vitriolic moaning is as integral a part of the football experience as wagonwheels, saying, “Who told you Bovril was a drink?” and watching men supping lager and urinating simultaneously.

A friend of mine recalls an afternoon in the Bob End during which the bloke sitting in front of him aimed a torrent of abuse at a young Boro midfielder. The fact that the youngster had red-hair was a particular source of vexation to the man. At one point he ended a fulminating diatribe by roaring, “Next time you show yourself in public wear a hat, you ginger twat”. My friend had had enough, “You can’t call him that,” he told the man. The man looked round. His face bore a look of vindictive triumph, “I’ll call him what I like,” he snarled, “I’m his father”.

Despite this uncompromising tradition the people who run Middlesbrough have not always looked favourably on slagging. A few years back the club chose not to renew a local radio station’s contract to cover matches at The Riverside. Rumour on Teesside has it that this was because officials were peeved over the negative comments about the team from expert summariser Bernie Slaven. The club did not give the slightest indication that this was the motive, I should add. It is just what a lot of people around the town think. In football just because a rumour is totally unfounded is insufficient reason for anyone to give up believing it.

Besides, Middlesbrough have taken a draconian attitude to such things in the recent past. You may recall the case of the man expelled from the Riverside Stadium and threatened with a banning order for having the temerity to fall asleep during a game with Arsenal. Eventually a judge ruled in his favour commenting along the lines that it is every Englishman’s inalienable right to nod off while watching the Gunners. Some felt that this quip showed that the judge was out of touch with a modern world in which Arsene Wenger’s team are the very acme of cosmopolitan verve. I prefer to think his attitude mirrored that of my mate Steve who has many times offered the opinion that, “I don’t care how exciting Arsenal are: they’ll always be bloody boring as far as I’m concerned”.

 

My mate Steve, I should say, is a Newcastle fan and takes a similar view to me on the loud invective issue. This is because his fondest memories of his first visits to St James’ Park are of the man who stood at the front of the Leazes End armed with a bag of stale pasties bought from a cut-price bakery near the ground. During the match the man would tear lumps off the pasties and throw them at the Magpies full-back Frank Clark while yelling 'You're too fucking slow. You're too fucking slow. You're so fucking slow you couldn't catch wor lass - and she waits for men.' 

We hear plenty these days about the campaign for the introduction of safe standing areas, but it seems to me that the way things are going we need to launch a campaign for safe slagging areas too. I for one would certainly sit in it. Even if it means listening to someone liken the opposition centre-back to a spinning jenny.



Friday, 6 February 2015

WINTER DRAWS ON


 In 2006 a retired Premiership referee wrote an autobiography...

Jeff Winter is routinely portrayed in sections of the media as arrogant and vain: a man who'd walk a million miles for one of his own smiles. The passage from his autobiography, Who's The B*****d  In The Black covering his last game at Anfield certainly boosts the notion of preening self-regard. 'Was the applause for me?' Winter asks himself, before replying, 'They are such knowledgeable football people, that it would not surprise me'. These sentences have been filleted out and used by numerous newspapers and websites - often under the headline 'The ego has landed' - to demonstrate the type of strutting bigheads that now hold the cards in Premier League matches.

If you have been paying attention this will come as little surprise. Pillorying match officials is one of the great hobbies of the modern game, nowhere more so than on TV and radio where every vaguely questionable decision is a (groan) 'talking point'. English clubs can be bought by international criminals, stripped, shafted and despoiled for fiscal gain without so much as a murmur from the gym-built dummies in the shiny shirts sitting spread-legged in the studio smugly imagining themselves to be men, but let the ref send off a player in the first half of some Super Sunday encounter and we are told the evil blackguard has 'ruined the game'. Let's be clear here - incorrect yellow cards are not what is ruining English football.

Anyroad, Jeff Winter. Maybe the gadgie from Middlesbrough really can't pass a mirror without blowing a kiss, but personally I find it hard to hate anybody who has driven Steve Bruce (these days looking like ever more like the world's toughest dinner lady) to such splenetic fury. Besides, I met Jeff Winter on a BBC Tees radio show some years ago and he was highly entertaining. He told a funny story – off air, naturally – about Steve Staunton ('Where I come from if you talk to someone like that you're likely to wake up on your back') and was belligerently rude about Darren Anderton: 'I said to him, 'Try to smile, even if it’s only wind.'
 
'I’m going to put it all in a book one day,' he said as we were leaving. And I thought to myself 'Now, that will be a book worth reading.' And now here is the book. And was I right? Well, hmm, yes, maybe, but only if you’ve got time on your hands.

The problem with all of what Mike Ticher once dubbed reflit is that however close match officials may get to the action they remain peripheral figures. They are not Prince Hamlet, nor were meant to be. The more they try and thrust themselves centre stage, the more desperate they seem. When reading books like that by David Elleray you feel you have entered an alternative world, one in which Coleridge’s wedding guest has held up a hand and told the Ancient Mariner 'I’d love to hear your shipwreck story old chap, but before I do, let me tell you of some amusing incidents that have occurred during my twenty-five years service as a clerk at Shadrack & Dombey.'

 
 
Even Jeff Winter, who spent his teenage years causing trouble on the terraces with the Central Boro Crew (though he insists he was a “boot boy” not a hooligan and – like an East End villain of cliche - only hurt his own kind) can’t avoid sounding vaguely Pooter-ish as he tells his tales of top banter with fellow rebels Dennis Wise and Robbie Savage, or the evening spent letting his hair down in the hot tub with Andy D’Urso and Mike Riley.

The anecdotes that made me laugh when Winter told them (his Teesside accent perfectly pitched for incredulity and scorn) seem oddly flat on the page, the punch lines arriving so slowly they’d struggle to take Rio Ferdinand by surprise.

Thankfully the serious sections of the book are altogether better and Winter certainly has some interesting things to say, particularly about the way power is sliding inexorably into the hands of the major clubs when it comes to issues of discipline. His collision with Sir Alex Ferguson when acting as 4th Official is particularly well handled and confirms that when in comes to the Premiership the Football Association is like a man holding onto the tail of a raging bull and cheerily assuring bystanders that he is riding it. Winter had alleged that the Manchester United manager called the linesman a “fucking cheating bastard” for not flagging for a foul when Andy O’Brien apparently brought down Ryan Giggs. The incident was captured on camera. Yet for the disciplinary hearing the FA was could not obtain a copy of the footage, Sky allegedly being unable to supply an unedited tape of the game.

Trapped between the amorality of those who finance football and the spinelessness of those who supposedly control it there is little wonder that Winter and his colleagues feel frustrated. They may not be lovable, they may be strutting autocrats bubbling over with self-importance , but they are by no means the biggest bastards in the game, not by a long chalk.


 

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Wednesday, 4 February 2015

IFS AND BUTT ENDS




A few years ago I received an email from a Bolton fan recalling the mid-60s at Burnden Park. Back then managerial and coaching duties fell to Bill Ridding who also served as club secretary and sat on the board. Ridding used to stand on the touchline smoking a pipe and wearing a homburg. At some point around 1966 irate Trotters fans took to serenading him with a song that included the lyric, "Resign Ridding, resign/Resign Ridding, resign/Take off you hat/You fucking great twat/Resign Ridding, resign."

If you follow a football team the biggest belly laughs you ever get are when you're standing on the edge of the abyss. If Manchester City added Lionel Messi to their real-life Panini sticker album of stars, he might bring goals but the gags would finally dry up. A friend of mine who has supported City since the late-1950s has given up going. He feels bitter and betrayed. I can't say I blame him. The man's watched 20 years of sour wisecracks disappearing down the plughole. Jerry Seinfeld once observed, "You can't have sex with someone you admire. Where's the depravity?" Likewise you can't joke if you're successful. It sounds like smug triumphalism.

We are entering what is undoubtedly the best time of the year for those of us who revel in the national game's dark and bitter comedy. It is not, however, a good time for any fan to give up smoking. A friend of mine who supports Hartlepool quit tobacco as a New Year's resolution. If he expected his football club to give him a helping hand as he battled withdrawal symptoms he has been disappointed. Instead of continuing in a vein of form that looked set to see them relegated by Valentine's Day, Pools have started to pick up points. Black-hearted hope has replaced the comforting numbness of despair. Tension has risen. On Saturday he had to nicotine-patch his way through a 3:2 home win over Plymouth. 'Just when I was down to fifteen kit-kats a day, they start this...' he says, 'It's like the players are working for British American Tobacco.'

I have to admit I have a good deal of sympathy for my friend. Because, as anyone who has ever given up smoking will know, the minute you quit you start looking for an excuse to start again. I gave up a 20-a-day habit in 1988 and I still find myself approaching any scenario that threatens doom with thoughts along the lines of, "Well, if I do lose a leg wielding this chainsaw in a foolhardy manner, at least no one will begrudge me having a fag." To be honest, until the smoking ban on aircraft there were times on long-haul flights when I've been practically willing the damn plane to go into a nose dive just so a I could snap up a carton of duty frees and start puffing away again.



What makes it worse for my friend is that due to work commitments he has to follow Pools' matches via 5 Live score updates. As every fan knows this is the most torturous experience anyone can willingly put themselves through. It is the sporting equivalent of natural childbirth, and Mark Pougatch is the midwife.

As the season wears on and on and on, I wonder if my friend will be capable of sticking to the plan he drew up. Or whether, as the full horror of what he has let himself in for begins to take hold and John Murray starts to tighten his grip and the icy words, "Now an interesting scoreline from Victoria Park which could have a bearing on the League Two relegation situation …", he will crack completely and bellow as so many have done before: "Bollocks to what I said four months ago, give me my drugs and give them to me now."