Saturday, 30 January 2016

RIDING ALONG ON THE CREST OF A SLUMP

My first trip to football since December 19th was at Brunton Park last week where over 7,500 turned up to see the Cumbrians return home after the floods. It did the heart good to see it, though I wonder if watering the pitch was really such a good idea.

The following day my father phoned. 'Typical Boro, coming down with the Christmas lights,' he said.

As previously explained here, my father knows nothing whatsoever about football (and cares less) but forty years of working in the Teesside steel industry have left him fluent in the games clich├ęs. He may not know what he's talking about, but he knows all the received wisdom and when to deliver it. He'd make an ideal pundit for Match of the Day, really.

Anyway, though there is some debate over how many games constitute a run, here's something I wrote about a previous post-Yuletide crisis at the Riverside.




There is no one smugger than a vindicated cynic, which is why a certain amount of self-satisfied smirking is going on around Teesside at the moment. Tony Mowbray's team, you see, have just lost three league games in a row.

It is one of the immutable laws of comedy that through repeated use a joke moves from being funny to being boring and then back to being funny again. To such beloved catchphrases as "This is a local shop for local people", "I'm the only gay in the village" we have long since added "Middlesbrough's traditional post-Christmas slump", variations of which appeared on just about every festive greeting I received from Boro fans last year.

In the minds of many, Boro's league campaign follows a seasonal pattern that is as unchanging as Steve Rider's hair. They push to the upper reaches of whatever division they are in before Christmas, then in the new year slide downwards faster than Tom Croft on a skeleton bob.

Injuries and a wafer-thin squad are factors to which Boro's current unhappy run has been attributed. Perhaps the explanation is simpler than that, though. Maybe after Christmas the players become tired from the effort of marching against the tide of history while carrying the burden of low expectation.

Of course, Middlesbrough fans are not alone in expecting the worst once the fairy lights have come down. West Bromwich Albion, Charlton Athletic and Leeds United are three of the other clubs who face January with the wariness of an incontinent puppy. The Baggies can point to the 1981‑82 season as an exemplar of the way that what for the general populace is a single "Blue Monday" splurges out across the whole of their January and a fair bit of February, too. Leeds, meanwhile, finished 2009 in second spot in League One with an 11‑point gap to third place, only to see the days of turkey curry and people muttering "I've hoovered this place six times and I still keep finding pine needles" usher in a spell that saw them win only three of their next 16 matches. Eventually the Elland Road club squeaked into an automatic promotion slot by a single point.
 

When a slump occurs everybody in football knows that it must be arrested. The only way to arrest a slump is to turn the corner. However, getting to the corner without the wheels coming off in what is a pressure‑cooker situation is by no means an easy task. Dave Bassett is one man who knew how to cope. The well-scrubbed former Wimbledon boss was for a while the Benedict Cumberbatch of slump arresting. After leaving the Dons he made a speciality of that rarest of all football phenomena, the post‑Christmas anti-slump. In 1990‑91 Bassett's Sheffield United side failed to win in their first 16 games and were bottom on Christmas Day with a meagre nine points. They went on to celebrate the new year by winning seven matches on the trot and finished the season 13th. How he did it remains a mystery. Bassett, who strode into press conferences giving off old-fashioned British manly odours of lanolin, talcum powder and social discomfort, has unfortunately remained predictably tight-lipped on the topic. And the fact he later failed to arrest a post-Christmas slump at Leicester City that lasted four winless months at the start of 2002 led many to suspect he never actually knew in the first place.

None of which helps Mowbray. The Victorians believed that sport prepared a young person for life. The only existence following Middlesbrough would ready anyone for is one of endless repetition, working on an assembly line or being Alan Hansen, perhaps. It is a steady drip of minor frustrations. Like the drops of water in the infamous Chinese torture each is nothing in itself. Added together, however, they are agony and every once in a while you just have to cry out.

During a memorable post-Christmas slump of the Bryan Robson era – a time when Boro's pursuit of a place in European football inevitably turned into a desperate struggle to avoid Saturday afternoons in Crewe – one denizen of the North Stand did just that. Over and over and over. He was a great slab of a fellow who, in his red-and-white replica shirt, looked like someone who had come to a fancy dress party as a Parcelforce van.
 
 

He was a grumbler to start with but, when the smoking ban was introduced, things really turned sour. Uncomforted by nicotine the man's spirits plummeted like a gannet after sprats. He groaned, he howled, he predicted dire consequences in all situations. The award of a throw-in to the opposition in their defensive quarter of the field saw him pull a face straight out of Edvard Munch with sound effects to match. The announcement of injury time was like the death scene in Camille. Eventually it all got too much for a bloke sitting two rows down. Midway through a 0-0 stalemate he stood up, turned round and pointed at the moaner. "How, mate, did the stewards confiscate your scythe, or what?" he roared. The moaner looked puzzled. "You sound like the grim fucking reaper," the man bellowed by way of explanation. "I bet your lass renews your season ticket just to get you out the bloody house."

I prefer to keep my pain private and as a form of self-mutilating protest I am refusing to sit up waiting for the Football League Show until Middlesbrough win again. Since this may not happen until post-Christmas becomes pre-Christmas again I will sadly be unable to report on the progress of Steve Claridge's slow metamorphosis into Blakey from On the Buses.


Saturday, 23 January 2016

THROUGH THE FLOOD AND THE MUD TO THE GREEN FIELDS BEYOND

As Austin Baird pointed out in his comment on the last post, my statement that things could only get better weatherwise proved about as accurate as a Gareth Southgate penalty. Last week even the games that had been moved to Consett's 3G pitch were postponed - snow and ice the cause rather than water.




As a consequence, the nearest I got to any football over the past fortnight was on a meandering train journey back from Glasgow to Carlisle that took me past the grounds of Auchinleck Talbot and Glenafton Athletic - and very romantic they looked too in the snow and mist.

I had been north of the border to give a couple of talks to the Cricket Society of Scotland, the first in Glasgow, the next in Edinburgh. My host on the latter occasion was a Burnley fan who had the singular distinction of having served as Wisden's correspondent on St Helena for several years.

Back home, and with no football to go to, I filled my Saturday listening to Test Match Special. Neil Manthorpe's spontaneous response to the first of James Taylor's catches - 'I'm practically speechless - and in this job that's something of a disadvantage.' made me laugh so loud I nearly fell out of my chair.

The commentary of Manthorpe and the rest of the TMS team were exemplary throughout the day. The same cannot be said of 5Live's football coverage which these days is so hectoring in tone Ian Wright increasingly sounds like a force of moderation.

To return to TMS: I have taken so much pleasure out of listening to cricket on the radio over the years that this has become - along with reading about it - my favourite means of enjoying the game.

Here's something I wrote on a similar(ish) topic for WSC a couple of years ago. 




A few months ago I was travelling in the Middle East with a photographer who was an obsessive follower of football. The photographer was in his mid-twenties. He watched matches on his iPhone, downloaded podcasts and had an assortment of aps that brought news, views and images plinking into his screen.

The photographer said he followed Arsenal. I asked if he got to the Emirates much. He shrugged, “I went once, but I didn’t really like it without the replays and the analysis. I see it more as a TV thing, you know?”

I said that increasingly I felt completely the opposite. I love going to football but I hardly watch it on the television at all. Because frankly, without the cold, the damp, the smell of fried onions and some bloke with an elaborate comb-over and a monkey-shit brown car coat yelling “Hells Bells, where’s our width?” every thirty seconds” I just can’t concentrate on the match.

“I suppose,” the photographer said, “You’re more of a genuine supporter”.

I gave him a look which I hope conveyed wry amusement at this touching display of naivety. For he was, of course, making a common mistake. He was confusing people who have been going regularly to football matches for many years with the genuine supporters when, in fact, the genuine supporters are quite a separate group altogether.
 
 

The genuine supporters are always in a pack. They are young, male, clad in jackets made from animal hide and wearing such quantities of Lynx Africa body spray that sitting down wind of them is like experiencing a CS gas attack. The genuine supporters arrive two minutes before kick-off.  Stuck in a queue to get to their seats they rail against the injustice of it all, "Chocker with bloody part-timers again. They're edging the genuine supporters out".

The genuine supporters support their team by their presence and the occasional gruff yell of "Crack him one, Yazza", but mainly by spending the equivalent of the GNP of Latvia at the catering outlets. To be a genuine supporter requires iron discipline and the intestines to match. You must get up out of your seat every fifteen minutes to acquire a fresh sack of flaccid chips, hamburger which oozes rust-coloured slime, or one of those deep-fried apple pies which, like some cunning marine mollusc, responds to be being bitten by ejaculating poisonous goo into the eyes of its assailant. Or the hair of the person in front.

Through frequent trips for victuals and the lavatory the genuine supporter cunningly circumvents the ban on standing and is on his feet throughout the game. This is not without inconvenience to the people around him, but nobody complains. They know that to do so is useless. Even the politest request that he sit still for a few minutes is met with a dead-eyed stare and the inevitable inquiry, "Where were you at Plymouth away in 1989, pal?" possibly followed by that deadliest and most profound of all English insults, “You’re all middle class, you lot”.

Becoming a genuine supporter is quite simply impossible for most of us, it is a young man’s game and if you have not done any self-righteous jostling by the time you are sixteen you might as well forget it.

Luckily getting older has some compensations. For example, I am currently giving serious consideration to becoming a codger. One thing I might do, for instance, is become fixated on a particular area of the field in which I feel the home team is deficient and shout about it throughout the game, usually in a tone of pained exasperation preceded by the kind of high-pitched groan you let out when you stuff a handful of salt and vinegar crisps in your mouth while simultaneously remembering that you have a mouth ulcer. "Why don’t we work the channels?"
 
 

Alternatively, I might choose to repeat use an arcane phrase, possibly of my own devising. A few years ago at a Northern League game I stood next to a man with the gnarled and twisted appearance of a bonsai tree who greeted each opposition goal kick by bawling, "Somebody sit on the flicker". What this meant I have no idea, but I have since used it myself on several occasions since, usually to the approving nods of those around me.

A more bold and dramatic step is to single out a home player and hurl insults at him week in and week out regardless of how well or badly he is playing. To really make an impression you don’t select the worst player on the team, you go for the best.  My grandfather used to recall with some merriment a man in the Chicken Run at Ayresome Park who spent fifteen years abusing the great George Camsell.  "Camsell, you couldn't trap a bucket of rivets," the man would bellow, "Camsell, our lass is quicker than you with a sack of coal on her back”".  Each game someone would come to Camsell's defence. "He scored 59 goals last season," they'd shout. To which the man would respond with withering scorn, "Well, that’s what he’s paid for, isn’t it?"

I explained all this to the photographer. He smiled and nodded thoughtfully throughout. It was only later I realised he had his headphones in and was listening to James Richardson.
 
 



  

                  

 

Saturday, 9 January 2016

GIVING HORNETS THE FINGER

Back again as promised amidst more pelting rain, postponements and the train line buried under 120 tonnes of mud. I saw just one match in December and haven't seen any so far in January. Even the one game I did get to watch involved a futile trip to Craic Park followed by a late dash to Hillheads where, in the gathering darkness, the fourth official produced a disturbing disco-light effects in one of the dugouts using his flashing signals board while the PA played Wombling Merry Christmas.

Ah well, it can only get better. For no particular reason here' a column about going to Vicarage Road I wrote for the Boro programme a few years back and an FA Cup-themed picture of Ironworks Road from the distant past.




Whenever Watford FC are mentioned I always find myself thinking of the approach to the away end at Vicarage Road. The approach to the Vicarage Road away end is something of a football legend. At Darlington’s old ground, Feethams they used to make you walk across a cricket field, but that’s nothing compared to what you have to go through in Hertfordshire. The approach to the Watford away end is Like one of those optical puzzles that used to appear in kids’ comics - the more you advance towards the ground the further away from it you seem to get. You wander through allotments, past balding me in cardigans with spray guns of phosphrogen cradled in their arms like Uzis, through acres of creosoted larch-lap fencing and tongue-and-grooved pitch-pine sheds, between cabbage patches and rhubarb beds, you lose sight of the stands altogether and then, suddenly, just as you are about to fall to your knees weeping in despair, you turn yet another corner and there the turnstiles are, right in front of you. Unfortunately by that stage the native bearers have panicked and run off with all your baggage.

 

I say the approach to the Vicarage Road away end is legendary, and that is particularly true for Boro fans. During the 1990s, Teessiders would often discuss the mythical tale of the “severed finger”. According to legend a travelling Boro fan had somehow got one of his digits trapped in a fence leading to the Hornets’ ground and. in his hurry to get into the stadium in time to see Ian Baird doing his warm up, had ripped it off and left it behind. Others who passed the finger claim that it was still wiggling, possibly in an attempt to applaud the arrival of Paul Kerr, or a splendid save during the kick-in by Stephen Pears, or maybe just beckoning onwards any Teessiders who were considering turning back in frustration and going down the pub instead.

 

Whether this story is true or not I have no idea. Medical professionals have told me it is implausible. But plenty of seemingly impossible things happen in football. After all what seems more unlikely to you: that some bloke from Middlesbrough would pull his own finger off so as not to miss a second of action involving Alan Kernaghan and Simon Coleman, or that that Liverpool would pay £39 million for Andy Carroll?