Saturday, 19 December 2015

THE SNOOD, THE FAD AND THE UGLY

As the runners entered the crucial phase of an Olympic middle-distance race the former BBC commentator David Coleman was given to gurgling "Oh my word … and has he gone too early?" Viewers often feared that Coleman himself had gone too early, reaching a pitch of excitement in the final curve of major finals that seemed unsustainable without access to helium. Yet somehow, just when you thought he was going to yodel his lungs out through his nostrils and let the final 50 metres pass in blissful silence, the great man found something extra. Coleman was a commentator whose hysteria knob went up to 11, and likely way beyond that.

This week I found myself wondering if Carlos Tevez hasn't gone too early. The Man City striker was wearing a fleece snood back in the balmy days of mid-November. Given that the striker has been here for long enough to know that this is not the coldest time of year in the UK, it was a sartorial decision that if nothing else proved that in Argentina they have no equivalent of the popular English phrase, "You want to take that off, or you won't feel the benefit".

It has been remarked that the Argentinian forward is no oil painting, though only by those who have never studied the work of Pieter Bruegel. Take a peek at the Flemish artist's festive masterpiece, The Massacre of the Innocents, if you don't believe me. Look, there's Carlos in the far right foreground, apparently trying to prise a baby out of the arms of Peter Beardsley and Sally Gunnell.

Fittingly, the snood is by all accounts the name given to a type of cowl once popular in the middle ages. It is clearly not the garment for everyone, but since Carlos has the mien of a medieval swine-gelder he carries it off quite splendidly.

Unfortunately in professional football trends spread quicker than athlete's foot at a toe-wrestling championships. Faddism is rampant in Premier League dressing rooms. Fifteen years ago, for example, there was not a striker in the land who did not don a pair of thigh-hugging cycling shorts. They were so ubiquitous the FA even had to legislate on their colour. The lycra trunks were supposed to guard against hamstring strains, though the main effect was surely psychological. They suggested dynamic bursts of speed even where none existed: the football equivalent of the go-faster stripes youths used to apply to the side of their Austin Allegros. Even the Middlesbrough striker Paul Wilkinson wore them and, whatever his many other fine qualities, Wilko was so slow he'd have needed a quad bike to round up the stock on a snail farm.



Yet despite the alleged protection they offered against injury, where are cycling shorts now? Mouldering in the back of the changing-room lockers with the peroxide bottles and those strips of sticking plaster players used to wear across their hooters apparently to increase oxygen intake.
As a result of this insatiable desire among his peers to fit in and keep up, Tevez has already been joined in his snoodiness by Marouane Chamakh and Emmanuel Adebayor. In current climatic conditions many more are bound to follow in their swaddled wake. The question is, if the Argentinian felt the urge for a snood three weeks back, what will he wear now it is genuinely cold – legwarmers, balaclava, jumpsuit?

Certainly, it as well Alan Curbishley is not currently on the scene. A decade ago the then Charlton Athletic manager – a man so mild, if he was cheese he'd be Edam – launched a, for him, unprecedented tirade against modern footballers' reaction to winter: "When you wear woolly hats, gloves and all sorts you cannot play properly," Curbs thundered. And quite right too.

Older readers will recall a time when no footballers dared wear gloves. Even goalkeepers rejected them for fear of mockery. Thirty years ago any child who tried to slip a pair on when taking up a position between the sticks would find the PE teacher sneering: "Oh dear, does the nasty ball sting diddum's ickle-wickle fingers? There, there, baby-boo-boo, here's oo rusk." The games master would then go on sarcastically to posit a future in which a generation of namby-pamby stars would refuse to head the ball unless they were wearing a crash helmet, insist that the floodlights be fitted with heat bulbs and strap hot water bottles to their torsos on frosty afternoons (to judge by his body shape, an approach already adopted by Yakubu Ayegbeni).

As if gloves were not bad enough, many players these days are flagrantly wearing vests under their shirts. For managers of the old school, raised in the harsh environment of, well, the old school, such developments must set alarm bells ringing. They know where it will lead. One minute it's keeping his vest on during games, the next it's a note from mother excusing him from showers because he's going through "that awkward phase".

And now we have the snood. Perhaps it will prove to be an isolated outbreak. Back in the 1970s, the bubble-permed Leicester City maverick Keith Weller decided to fight off the cold by wearing a pair of white tights under his shorts. Nobody followed him. He had gone too early.




    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

THE CLASS OF '61

Going to watch Boro play in a pre-season friendly at Brunton Park in August 2005 you could still smell the damp from that January's flooding as you walked down Warwick Road. That it should happen again is immeasurably cruel.



On a happier note, I've a piece about South Bank and the Ellis Cup in the latest issue of The Blizzard. There's lots of other good stuff in there, including a great article by Gunnar Persson about tragic Swedish genius Nacka Skoglund.



(Nacka on the left, Knacker on the right)

Oh, and there's a piece about Tasmania Berlin the worst team in Bundesliga history, too. You can order/download a copy here: https://www.theblizzard.co.uk/

Finally catching up on that Class of '92 documentary  reminded me of this, written for WSC a decade back.



When they reach their forties, men experience a change. You begin to suspect that the manufacturers of jeans have started skimping on material, you meet young people (yes, you have started to use the phrase “young people”) that you assume are sixth-formers and when you ask politely what A-levels they are doing discover that in fact they are GPs, barristers or your new boss, and you feel strangely compelled to tell your children not to keep saying like, like all the, like, time, for goodness sake because “you’re hardly going to impress a prospective employer speaking like that”.

Worst of all, though, is the dawning realisation that you can no longer lie in bed and daydream about being a professional footballer. Because even a fantasy must have a tenuous thread attaching it to reality and, once you leave your thirties, the scoring-a-hat-trick-in-the-Cup-final thread has snapped with a reverberating twang.

You still daydream about football, of course, but the nature of the daydream changes. Where once you were spotted in the back garden dribbling effortlessly round toddlers and dogs and catapulted to fame and glory, now you write series of international best-sellers/invent a water-powered car/win the lottery four times in the same month and use the money to buy your football club. You are a model chairman. You implement all sorts of radical measures: investing equally in local young talent and top names from around the globe who “will excite the fans”, forging links with the local community, allowing kids in free for FA Cup ties, abolishing post-goal music and banishing sponsors’ names from the old-style cotton shirts the design of which remains unchanged for at least a decade.



You are a hands-off chairman – of course you are – but just every so often you pop into the dressing room and modestly offer an incisive and rather brilliant piece of tactical advice that turns the Champions League semi-final decisively in your favour (though naturally you refuse to take any credit for it despite a clamour in the media for you to take the England job). Soon the stadium rings with chants of praise featuring your name, while Match of the Day cameras catch you blushing humbly amid a throng of former players and adoring blondes. You are praised by Andrew Jennings and denounced by Sepp Blatter. One of the most important milestones in a man’s life is when he stops wanting to be the new PelĂ© and starts wishing he was the new Jack Walker.

That, at least, was what it used to be like. No longer. Because one of the most brutally damaging effects of the recent emergence of Premier League clubs as a rich man’s plaything, one that has not so far been touched on in the press, is the effect it has had on the fantasy chairmen of England. The influx of oligarchs and oil barons has, quite simply, pushed the price of even a moderate football club way outside the reach of even the most vivid imagination.

The news that Newcastle United would be beyond the pocket of JK Rowling was the final straw for me. £450 million? How do you dream up that kind of sum? Age has ended my fantasy of a World Cup winner’s medal and now cold, hard cash has spat in the eye of the one that replaced it. My grandad always assured me that money would ruin football. Little did I suspect that it would not only spoil the real game, it would destroy the made-up game as well.



Some may feel that the obvious solution is to daydream about buying a lower-division or non-League club instead. At first that may appear attractive. But taking a grassroots small-town club and leading them all the way up from the Conference North to the UEFA Cup is perilous. I have explored it recently and to be honest it never ends well. Your club’s new wealth breeds simmering resentment among others of similar stature, the hardcore fans are quickly alienated and replaced by glory seekers. You see yourself as a philanthropic bene­factor bringing joy to a depressed corner of the north. Others see you as an opportunistic sugar daddy who has undermined fair competition. There is much talk of Gretna and Rushden & Diamonds. It is not much fun having a fantasy that is filled with visiting fans chanting: “Where were you when you were shit?”

Of course you could take over the non-League club and not shower it with your imagined riches, building it up slowly through night after night after night of hard work, endeavour and prudent financial management. But, be honest, where is the fantasy in that?

Saturday, 5 December 2015

THE BOY ZONE STORY



 
 
In October Wallsend Boys Club played a  fixture against Senrab FC of London to raise awareness of recent Uefa regulations stipulating that a percentage of the transfer fee of any player who moves between countries must be paid to the clubs he played for as a youngster. Wallsend have collected as a result of Fraser Forster's move from Celtic to Southampton, while Senrab benefitted from Jermain Defoe's transfer from Toronto to Sunderland. Sadly, no such fees are paid when a player moves to another club within the same association.
One of the first pieces I wrote for the Guardian, was about this very situation. At the time Sid Sharp secretary of Wallsend Boys told me 'If the clubs got 1% of the transfer fees their ex-players generate, we'd be in clover.' 

If such a system were in place, Redheugh Boys Club would, for example, have pocketed close to £700,000 from Andy Carroll alone. But it isn't. Because while Premier League clubs are apparently happy to hand over millions to agents of doubtful probity and dubious intent, they steadfastly refuse to put more than the bare minimum back into the grassroots game.

My article made no difference to this situation whatsoever, obviously, but I did get to talk to some very fine people. One of them, Evan Bryson was later awarded an MBE for his services to the local community, Her Britannic Majesty apparently recognising the importance of his work, even though the Premier League didn't. Tripehounds.
 
 
10 November, 1996.
Sunday lunchtime on South Tyneside. A hard frost has been followed by the kind of fog that should exist only in pop songs. In Redheugh Boys’ Club, Evan Bryson is fielding calls from young footballers desperate to hear their particular match hasn’t been called off.

Team managers and coaches nip in and out, steam from their mugs of tea misting up the windows of what was once a Victorian schoolhouse. Along one side of the room a trestele table creaks beneath the weight of trophies, cups and shields accumulated during the club’s 40-year existence. On the opposite wall a sky blue Lazio shirt signed by Reheugh Boys’ most famous former player, Paul Gascoigne, glimmers in the pale winter light.

Gascoigne’s name is one everyone’s lips at Redheugh this morning – not in response to the midfielder’s anonymous display for England in Tblisi yesterday, nor for the fresh revelations about his private life in the morning tabloids, but because the minibus he donated to the club a few years ago and which is needed to ferry the U-13s up the hill to Whickham, is sagging to one side – the result of a worn shock absorber.

Gascoigne turned up at Redheugh Boys Club aged nine and stayed until he was fifteen. Without the club it’s debatable whether Gazza would have made it in football, or, indeed, in life generally. Yet when Newcastle United took the boy wonder across the Tyne to St James’ Park, Redheugh Boys Club did not receive a penny.
 

After four decades of devoting his spare time to running the club, Bryson long ago ceased to be surprised by the attitude of professional clubs, ‘They can find a little diamond here, or at one of the other boys’ clubs and take him away,’ he says, ‘and all they have to give you is seven days’ notice. And often you’re lucky if you even get that.’

The view is endorsed by Sid Sharp of Wallsend Boys Club, ‘The professional clubs are greedy and insular,’ he says, ‘They don’t give a damn about grassroots football. I once complained to a First Division manager* about his scouts taking my players away without proper notification, I told him that if I can’t fulfil fixtures because of lack of players we are in trouble. He just said, ‘If your club folds another one will take its place.’’

Over the years Tyneside’s boys clubs have been a fertile breeding ground for talent, Wallsend alone have turned up more than £70 million worth of players.

Since Redheugh Boys Club began life in a flat above a shop back in the 1950s, it has sent a steady stream of players out into the professional game. ‘Tommy Robson who played for Chelsea and Peterborough was the first,’ Bryson recalls, ‘The most recent was Don Hutchison. We sent a lot of players to Middlesbrough at one time’ among them were Joe Laidlaw, David Hodgson and Billy Woof.

In his time at Redheugh Bryson has watched the players go, seen them transfered on for millions and wondered why so little of that money has trickled back to the places that nurtured the talent in the first place. The largest single payment Redheugh have ever received came – ironically - from impecunious Hartlepool United when Hutchison was sold to Liverpool. Even factoring in that sum, Bryson estimates that the total League clubs have contributed to Redheugh over four decades works out at around £1.25 per week. ‘Football is the only industry that gets its raw materials – the players - for nothing,’ he says.

The club survives on a small grant from the local council, subscriptions from 150 or so members, donations and the sale of raffle tickets.

Many of the men who help run the club once played here as youngsters. They return, Bryson says, because the club represents one of the last focal points of the community: ‘You had big engineering works, for example. You worked with 600 other blokes. You knew maybe 500 men by name and their families, too. That’s all gone now; but the boys club is still here.’
 
 

The boys clubs’ position has not been helped by the Football Association. The ‘Blueprint for Football’, a document that laid out a plan to rationalize the system of youth coaching in England, pushed them to the bottom of the pack, labelling them as ‘priority C'. ‘Despite our track record in producing players we are ranked below schools and the centres of excellence,’ Sid Sharp says, ‘They have all the say at county and national level. We simply have to abide by their decisions.’

Bryson believes the FA made a mistake in placing so much emphasis on football in schools. Changes in curriculum and the selling off of playing fields mean that many inner-city schools no longer offer youngsters the chance to play the game. Meanwhile, those that do, particularly in the North, are hampered by the long winter nights and often have no fixtures from November through February, ‘If it was left to the schools alone a lot of lads round here would have no football at all for four months of the season,’ Bryson says.

The behaviour of the centres of excellence is also a cause for concern. ‘The thing with them is,’ Bryson says, ‘that they take up a mass of boys at the start of the season and then if they decide they don’t want them they dump them back on us. But by then we’ve filled up their places with new lads, so it’s hard to find a place for them.’

Sharp likens the professional clubs to open-cast mining operators, scooping up large chucks of the football landscape, sifting out the bits that are valuable and slinging the rest aside. ‘The boys clubs are left to pick up the pieces,’ he says.

But this particular Sunday morning in Redheugh, Bryson has a more pressing problem: the minibus. He phones a helpful local businessman to borrow a substitute vehicle to take the U-13s to Whickham. Soon the bus bearing Gascoigne’s name has been temporarily replaced with one carrying the logo – appropriately some might think – of ‘Superpie’.

The fog clears, but it’s a bitter afternoon, doubly so for the U-13s who lose 3-1. They will be back next Sunday. Redheugh has absorbed worse setbacks and kept on going.


*The manager was John Lyall, then with Ipswich Town.
 
 

 The following ran as a sidebar to the piece.

Tyneside Boys Clubs

Montagu and North Fenham

Former players: Kevin Richardson, Gordon Armstrong, Arthur Horsfield

Dick Almond (secretary): ‘In my 42 years at Monty all we have received from the professional clubs is one cheque for £10 and a signed football.’

Cramlington Juniors

Former players: Alan Shearer (who also played for Wallsend), Andy Sinton, Graham Fenton

Glenn Craggs (secretary): ‘The players who go away and make it are usually pretty generous, but the clubs themselves put little back.’

Wallsend

Former players: Peter Beardsley, Steve Bruce, Steve Watson. Lee Clark, Robbie Elliot.

Sid Sharp (secretary): ‘If the boys’ clubs got even one per cent of the transfer fees their ex-players’ sales generate we would be in clover.’

Cleveland Hall

Former players: Steve Stone, Gary Owers, Graeme Jones

Jim Sinclair (secretary): ‘Usually when a club takes a player they give you a football. I knew Steve Stone must be good, because when he went to Forest they give us two.’