Friday, March 16, 2007
That is of course if you are a Newcastle United or Arsenal fan this weekend. And that is in turn because all of the inventions created to give meaning to football have failed those clubs this spring.
For now 18 of England’s top twenty clubs can be pleased their existence is not futile. Watford, Boro, Spurs, Chelsea, ManU, Liverpool, and Blackburn can all still win a trophy. The rest of the division can fight for a Uefa Cup place at one end of the table, or for survival at the other.
Trophies are of course the nicety of Football meaning. Be they a cup or a title they offer a mention in historical almanacs, and some cause for celebration at the time. But both their forms fail too many clubs each year.
Cup football struggles. After all, it depends on eliminating all but two teams before it ends. And while other fans might show passing interest in the eventually winner, their own team is what really fires their hearts.
So behind the cups we establish leagues. Leagues last longer and knock no one out on a dismal Thursday night in March. And with relegation, a trophy, and degrees of European qualification, the Premiership offers plenty to play for.
But while no side will be knocked out, many will become the walking dead.
Arsenal’s season didn’t finish with cup defeat, it finished with a fluke winner against a poor Villa side on Wednesday night. That win effectively secured a top four finish with no prospect of coming first. Newcastle meanwhile face more dire a conclusion - Safe from relegation, but well out of reach of Uefa Cup football next year.
Both sides must now play out nine meaningless games while thinking about next season. And they won’t be alone for long.
Wins for Fulham, Wigan, or Villa this weekend would make them undead as they pull clear of relegation. Defeat for Blackburn or Portsmouth would probably see sixth place slip beyond their reach too. A bad set of results for West Ham would finish them, and on Monday Boro could be turned by defeat at Old Trafford. Zombies were once most prevalent in the lower divisions of English football. Promotion and relegation interested at most a dozen teams in April, with minimal ongoing cup involvement.
But undead beware, the lower leagues took action. They created the play offs and it worked. The play offs extended the prospect of promotion to sixth place. And that in turn meant fewer comfortable strolls for the team in second, and more to play for for the team in ninth.
The same format should have stretched to relegation, with four teams playing two semi-finals, and the losers then playing the final. Were that the case today not one Championship team would relax right now.
There is no promotion from the Premier league, but a Champions League place for fourth place. Put that to a play off and finishing seventh or third would then mean something. Arsenal and Newcastle would be alive again.
That might not be fair, and some zombies may object, but it would be interesting. It would foster greater excitement. And it would therefore serve the purpose of all football competitions. To give the beautiful game meaning.
New Zealand have been installed as firm favourites for the World Cup, but with three teams going into the last day of the Six Nations with a realistic chance of winning it, could any of them lift the William Webb Ellis trophy in France this winter?
The key to defeating someone is either outplaying them at your own game or countering theirs. [there is the third option of getting lucky, but as a strategy I have never trusted that].
Now we have the advantage that current Kiwi coach Graham Henry used to be in charge of the Lions and Wales. We have a lot of knowledge about him both from the inside and outside.
Henry has always been a systems manager. To his credit he has changed his systems as rugby moved forward (something Phil Larder didn't seem capable of), he is also blessed with two of the outstanding talents in world rugby at 7 and 10, and a pretty useful other 28 players.
Systems can be countered and overcome with better systems or individual brilliance/mistakes. Unfortunately the best players can adapt to an unfolding game (witness Catt and Geraghty's try-creating breaks against France).
So to beat New Zealand you need to both counter Henry's systems and hope that NZ's creative and destructive hubs (McCaw and Carter) don't adapt to what you are doing to beat them.
Since the last World Cup the Kiwis re-built their side. They returned focus to forwards and set plays to go with the fast-running skills that so impressed in 2003, bur were ultimately crushed by Australia's defence.
The forwards broke down their scrummaging technique and improved power 150 per cent, focussed on offloads to cut through a drift defence and adopted a front-on rush-defence to put pressure on the opposition 10 and 12.
They also had several brilliant players emerge/grow/start to fulfil their potential. All of this combined to create their current style.
Wasps have been playing a version of this front-on defence since c2004. It is the system that broke the Leicester/Larder drift-defence hegemony and won them three premierships and a European cup, so not overly surprising that this is the system that broke the Larder/England dominance really.
Additionally, the fast feet and movement over pick-up, drive, set platform, repeat has been seen before in the 6N with Wales' Grand Slam.
But recently, beating these styles has become more common. Leicester, Gloucester, and Bristol all sit above Wasps in the Premiership and Wales look like they could go from Grand Slam winners to Wooden Spoon holders in two years.
Recently South Africa have used a version of the blitz defence to twice beat the Kiwis.
And they, along with Ireland, France, Argentina, and England (if we ever get over out All Black fear) have the ability to beat NZ.
Focussing on England's chances (because I don't know the others)…
England's traditional strengths are forwards, tactical kicking, and drift defence, and they took three years to cotton on that these just weren't working without THAT back row, and Johnson in the pack and Jonny and Greenwood in the backs (the brains and points of the side).
But we have finally learned, and have players that have been schooled in the "new" international style all over the park (the all-Wasps back row should be fun tomorrow). We can learn, we can adapt, and we can play the 'new' style.
Additionally, with the return of Catt we have the brains to break a system, and in Strettle and Geraghty and Tait we have young players capable of beating a man and hitting space, while Flood looks happy offloading and unsettling oppositions by mixing kicks, passes and runs according to the situation (his chip to himself when the French tried to blitz him was evidence of intelligence and improvisation, and the way he dismissed the attentions of Betsen was also a plus).
And in Strettle, Tait, and Flood we are seeing the fruits of out recent sevens and youth teams start to filter through to the senior side - something that has been too long in coming.
However, there are also older hands that deserve a place. Lucy, Cueto, Robinson, Tindal, Wilkinson, Moody, and Corry are still here and playing. Can we really ignore so many World Cup winners? Getting the blend right will be key.
Whether we can beat the All Blacks at their own game is another question - but if we can make France look slow and off the pace then we can do it to a lot of teams.
Ultimately, though, it's not a question of copying the All Blacks, it's about getting the best out of your team and stopping the opposition.
England have the players and the coach in place to do this - whether this will be enough is another question.
Seconds out, final round.
The Big Blogger is at its end. It's swansong. The bell has sounded for the final lap. The fourth official has held up his board, and the hooter tooted [other sporting metaphors deleted on grounds of breaching UN rules on "cruel and unusual" punishment].
I know of about eight articles by pseuds' regulars - so at least five of them will be going up here in a few hours.
Good luck everyone, and I'll see you on the other side…
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
MotM - Hello, my name is MouthoftheMersey and I’m a blogoholic.
Mimi - Hello, my name is Mimitig and I worry I might be getting hooked, but I can go more than 24 hours without a blog.
Sean - Hello, my name is Sean and I’m your counsellor for tonight.
Sean - Tell me. How did you start blogging?
MotM - I was introduced to it by a friend. I started with a little social posting, you know, complaining about anti-Everton bias, routine stuff. But then I started blogging heavily - hour-long binge sessions on Giles vs Monty for the First Test. I was naïve: I thought I could handle it.
Mimi - I fell into it by chance. I was missing my fix of OBO and trawling the GU site for something to amuse me, I discovered the SportsBlog.
Sean - Does it interfere with your work, your family life?
MotM - I started sneaking out of meetings to post regular updates arguing the case against Manchester United on Rob Smyth articles. Soon I was citing phantom appointments to stay at my desk posting clips to the YouTube column. I guess I really began to recognise that I had a problem when I started blogging before work on David Conn articles so dense less than 2% of the readership understand them.
Mimi - I lost touch with my family during the recent Ashes and CB Series. They simply didn’t understand how important it was to sleep all day and spend all night in the company of people I’ve never met.
Sean - Who do you blame for your problem?
MotM - Obviously, I blame myself. I should have listened to friends and family - I guess I was in denial.
Mimi - it’s absolutely not my fault, but I couldn’t name and shame the evil pushers who have encouraged my participation.
Sean - What do you propose to do about it?
MotM - I'm going to continue to seek help. I know I’m not alone. I’ll take each day as it comes. Can’t wait for Gideon Haigh on the Super Eights…. Oh, damn!
Mimi - I can’t think about that now. I have a World Cup to worry about ….
MotM’s and Mimi’s condition is not thought to be fatal, although it is clear that long-term therapeutic intervention is required. Referral to the BBC’s Sports Live coverage would be a positive step in addressing their addiction, although the cold turkey of the Daily Telegraph would probably result in a hostile reaction and an attack directly focussed on Rob Smyth’s Myspace page.
Having taken legal advice, I can confirm that GU is unlikely to be found liable in suit, although the law is still at an early stage of development.
The fallback position to cure any patient diagnosed with obsessive desire to participate in citizen journalism remains exposure to Alan Greene on 606. Should that prove necessary, I cannot be responsible for the consequences.
When we lost to Germany the response to the players’ performance was generally positive (though people didn’t take kindly to Stan’s view that we had performed magnificently, we had after all been beaten and though the effort was good, moral victories aren’t worth any points). With our players, nobody expects us to beat Germany away from home but we do expect to beat San Marino, home and away, without too much bother. We do not expect to lose 5-2 to Cyprus.
Irish supporters realise that we don’t have the talent or experience of the teams that qualified for three out of four tournaments between ’88 and ’94. Everyone accepted that fact at some stage during Kevin Kilbane’s 75-cap career.
The one time in the half-dozen that we did qualify came about because Roy Keane got mad as Hell and just wouldn’t take it any more against Portugal and the Netherlands. Again, we know Keane is gone and that we will not see a player capable of such heights in an Irish shirt for a very long time. So, as it stands, we don’t have a great pool of talent and we don’t have one great footballer to make up for the team’s weaknesses.
In such circumstances, the one thing we had to get right was the appointment of the manager. We needed someone capable of examining our limited resources and creating a style of football that would make the best use of our qualities (Given, Dunne, Finnan, Duff, Doyle and Keane) and shore-up our weaknesses.
Instead, we got Steve Staunton who, they tell us, will bring ‘the passion’ back to Irish football. (Ian Harte has been playing like that all these years because of a lack of passion?)
This is an extraordinary gamble on the part of the FAI. They talk of grass-roots improvements going on behind the scenes, the re-structuring of the organisation from within and the implementation of long-term plans to secure the future of Irish football but when it came to the biggest decision of all, they went with a hunch.
There seems to be an attitude that, in this campaign, Stan will learn the ropes and that a real push will be made next time. We cannot afford such luxuries. Our current qualifying group isn’t tough but we’re floundering already, the Cypriots having shown us that passion is no substitute for organisation, aggression and skill.
What happens if we are drawn against, say, Portugal and the Netherlands in our next qualifying group? I’ll tell you what happens – we won’t qualify and two campaigns will have been wasted on a long shot.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Perhaps this is about aesthetics: in his book Brilliant Orange, David Winner tells how Johan Cruyff thought Gary Lineker hopelessly limited because all he did was score. This seems to be a peculiarly Dutch perspective, but maybe the English, while not renowned for valuing the finer aspects of football, feel the same way about Crouch.
Perhaps, though, this is more about frustration, because, although an international striker with an impressive scoring record, the 6ft 7ins Crouch promises to be so much more.
He could be colossal, a behemoth, gargantuan and immense. Defenders would hit him and crumple, folding in on themselves like the canvas of a dismantled tent. Or they would bounce: big slabs of meat, sailing dumbly through the cold, clear air - like cattle fired from a giant catapult - to land in the stand, where they would remain, awestruck, marvelling at Crouch’s vitality.
But he isn’t and they don’t. Put simply, and to borrow a phrase from Somerset Maugham, Crouch is too tall for his strength. Recognising the need to broaden, he has increased his body weight by 15% over recent years, but the perception of frailty remains. Ultimately, I suppose, we must respect the limits of nature. Maybe expecting Crouch to transform into a man-mountain is no more realistic than expecting Maradona to sprout a few inches in height, Zidane to be just that little bit quicker or Carlton Palmer to be technically adept.
What can reasonably be expected, however, regardless of bulk, is for Crouch to make the most of his height. To leap. Like a lone dolphin breaking the ocean surface to soar over the waves with ease and grace, Crouch should rise above the sea of bobbing heads, unencumbered and alone, hanging, momentarily motionless, before delivering the ball a ferocious blow, sending it fizzing and whirring, blurred, into the net, to nestle, briefly forgotten, while the world around it erupts.
Or failing that, he could at least stand up straight.
Being so tall can’t be easy. You are exposed, obviously different, a target. It takes a certain personality to pull it off, and Crouch seems to lack the confidence to fill the role. It is fanciful to suggest that anyone can flourish in professional football without a certain amount of self-possession and fortitude, yet rather than draw himself up to his full height, announce himself physically and terrorise the opposition, Crouch appears angular, awkward, self-conscious, like a rapidly growing teenager.
So yes, one day, Peter Crouch may get the recognition he deserves. But that day will come only once he fully appreciates that his first name and surname are not separated by a comma.
I toddled along to my sports pub in Stockholm, arriving half an hour before kick-off to be sure of finding a seat with a good view of the big screen. As I passed the side of the pub, I glanced inside and saw a heaving sea of green and white. The penny dropped: Celtic were playing Rangers.
I took a last, deep drag on my cigarillo, survived a coughing fit and made for the entrance. Gearing myself up to wade through a welter of Fergiespeak, I lunged for a slot next to a bearded kilt at the bar. Pint pulled and tasted, I turned to survey the scene: where was the best place to stand?
Then the next penny dropped: Hammarby! Not Celtic scarves - Hammarby scarves! Yes - local club Hammarby, with their green-and-white colours, were in the semi-finals of Sweden’s bandy championship, and their ground is a stone’s throw from the pub. Their fans were here in force, enjoying a pint before the game.
Bandy? To put it simply, bandy is hockey on ice. It’s not ice hockey - the players don’t wear all that silly protective gear, and it’s not played on a small rink. The pitch is about the size of a football pitch and there are eleven players on each side. It is hockey, adapted to the climate of a country which - until recently - enjoyed long, icy winters.
Bandy has many positive aspects. One is that big money has not taken over: it is still, if you like, the ”people’s game”. And bandy people have a whole ”bandy culture” of their own - not least the bandy briefcase. This briefcase - preferably of the brown, retro variety - traditionally holds all that is needed to brave two hours standing in an open wintry arena, i.e. a thermos filled with coffee and a hip flask filled with hooch. It’s a great Swedish game!
A great Swedish game? No - a great English game! Bandy originated in the Fens, and its rules were formulated in 1891 by C.G. Tebbutt, captain of the Bury Fen Bandy Club, when the National Bandy Association was founded in England. In 1894, Tebbutt visited Stockholm to spread the gospel. Perhaps he took along star player William ”Turkey” Smart, whose surname mirrored his way of skating - hunched forward, arms a-flailing, just like today's players.
Some say that it’s all the fault of a volcano on the other side of the Earth. In 1883, Krakatoa erupted in faraway Indonesia. Its soot and ash polluted the atmosphere, leading to a low-budget version of the Ice Age in Europe. Markets were held on the frozen Thames. The wetlands of the Fens froze, too, and the locals had no choice: if they fancied a game of hockey, they had to play on ice. Anyone for bowls? Oh, sorry - curling!
These days, bandy is big in Scandinavia, Russia and (cue: Borat) Kazakhstan - but hardly anyone knows about the game in its native Fen country. Strange, really, in view of the fact that an English bandy club has won the European Cup - the footy version, that is. The original name of Notts Forest was, apparently, The Nottingham Forest Football and Bandy Club...
Ninety minutes before an FA Cup replay, I’d be walking towards the floodlights as the programme sellers were setting up, the onions sizzling on the griddles of the burger vans and the police-horse dung still steaming on the street. Once through the turnstiles, I’d race up the steps and there it was, that great swathe of technicolour green with its sharp white lines, all there in front of me, just me. I’d stare and stare amazed that such a place was possible, then settle for the wait, slightly bored, but very happy. Slowly the ground would fill with small groups of men (it was almost always men in those days) who would stand peering myopically at their programmes. Occasionally, a man would break from a small group to shake hands with a man whom he has greeted in this way at every home game for 25 years, but never met in any other setting.
Two whole hours before a Test Match, my father, my brothers and I were in situ on the hard benches of Old Trafford unpacking the first of many, many spam sandwiches and unscrewing the flasks. Before us was the enormous field, like a gigantic distorted snooker table. Grass was being mown and assailed our city noses with the folk-memory of harvest aromas. People would arrive and speak in hushed voices, so quiet was the Ground. Later, less timid arrivals would lever the ring off the first of many lagers to be consumed over the day, and behind us, the first of the relays to the bar would return carrying four pints of bitter on a cardboard tray being ribbed by his mates for spilling a drop or two on a journey that would have been rejected by Gennaro and Guido for the Fil Rouge as too tricky. Half an hour before the start, the players would shamble out of the Pavilion for a few desultory catches and then disappear again, before coming out marginally more enthusiastically for the start of play. In those seasons long ago, swamped with seven days a week cricket, nobody seemed to bother with stretches and warm-ups, nor did anyone ever seem to be injured.
Half an hour before the start of a speedway meeting, wiry men in garish leathers would limp towards the pits. A thrum of excitement would rustle through the handful of people in the “crowd”. Bang, an open exhaust engine is fired; and Bang, there’s another. Wrists twist, engines scream, and then would waft the glorious tang of the methanol fuel to your nostrils. Suddenly, you’re a kid again, rushing out to the ice-cream van for a 99 as the smell catapults you back through 30 years.
In the hospitality suites, they spend the run up to an event picking away at their prawn cocktails and supping warm white wine. In the crowd though, nothing and everything is happening.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Wimbledon must surely be the worst. A moment after the poor creatures have finished a gruelling contest against the world’s best, are they allowed off the court to have a pee/throw up/jump up and down/ bang their head against the wall? No, they have to stand there while Sue Barker shoves a mike under their nose and asks them how they feel.
It’s almost impossible for sportspeople to say anything in these situations which is of any value. For one thing, they’re knackered. But also, their sports psychologists teach them that they should (a) give themselves praise for playing well, and (b) walk away from a bad performance, (though later they will, of course, ‘learn from it’) - and putting this into words makes them sound (a) arrogant or (b) deluded.
Currently by far the best at post-match spin is Roger Federer, who has found fifty ways to indicate that he played outstandingly well without sounding conceited - something Tiger Woods has never quite managed. Recently, Roger has taken to saying that he’s really rather surprised himself by how good he is. This is an outright lie, of course, but he carries it off with that subtle effrontery he uses so well on court.
Cringe-making though they often are, post-match statements can be highly entertaining for the viewer who picks up on what scriptwriters call the subtext. So when Andrew Flintoff is wittering on about taking something positive from an Ashes defeat, we know that what he’s actually saying is: “We were crap, we know we were crap, and we’re totally pissed off about it, and right now I really, really want to stab Ricky Ponting. But failing that, I wouldn’t mind giving you a smack in the mouth, you annoying little interviewer person.” Similarly, it’s a pleasure to watch Arsene Wenger’s mask of headmasterly composure when you know that underneath lies a seething hunger for world domination.
The pre-match mission statement is even more of a minefield. Big yourself up too much and you’re tempting fate, praise the opponent too highly and you sound scared. Whatever you say will come back to haunt you. Again, Federer is clever at this, but most players opt for the safe and banal.
Nothing was safe or banal about the all-time master of the microphone, Mohammed Ali, who could unnerve an interviewer like no man before or since, and who quite possibly invented rap with his outrageous rhyming pre-fight prophecies. My own favourite, a couplet which for brevity and verve would make Alexander Pope spit with envy, is:
“This will shock and amaze ya -
But I am gonna beat Joe Frazier.”
(Say it out loud to yourself….) But no one else can do it. Imagine Andrew Murray shouting “I am the greatest!” One would just want him to be quietly led away.
They say the world today is awash with cheap money looking for a home. It does not seem implausible to me that one of the private equity syndicates we hear so much about may cast its eye further a field than industrial or financial assets. They may look upon India, and see a middle class with ever-greater leisure time and disposable income, seeking diversions and entertainments, a land where one particular sport is almost a religion in itself.
How long can it be before the combination of the game of Cricket and India become an irresistible prize, sought after by those with the longest of pockets?
How much would it cost and how hard would it be? It was recently reported that an Australian first class side has a salary cap of a little over A$1 million. The average player may therefore expect somewhere between A$50,000 and A$80,000 a season. Star players naturally cost more but an outfit needs only a few of these. When you compare these sums to the salaries of European or American footballers or baseball or basketball players, it seems a trifle.
If you think about the hundreds of millions of dollars that are paid for broadcast rights, and then subtract even a trebled wage bill from that figure, you are still left with a tidy profit. Sure there would be grounds to hire and other costs, but these are offset by the sale of multimedia rights and merchandise. The league would use a market-driven format of the game, such as Twenty20, with the aim being to entertain and enthrall the sell-out crowds. Satellite television would beam the games live into the homes of millions of subscribers around the globe.
Could it happen? Star players and lesser lights in the major Cricket nations are contracted on two or more year deals. However, as we have seen before, a concerted effort by a well-funded and determined suitor can succeed. When the financial slugfest becomes too much to bear or the crowds no longer come to see second-rate contests, pressure will build. The beleaguered associations may prefer a deal whereby all parties walk away with something rather than a drawn-out fight for survival.
The age of Cricket as a professional league would then have arrived. I can imagine franchises in all the major cities of the sub-continent as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and perhaps South East Asia. A salary cap and draft would keep the league even and interesting with conference leaders making the play-offs, and the two best teams each season meeting in a best-of-seven finals series.
See you at the ballgame.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
I and all I was thinking was "it's not over yet".
Since then it hasn't begun - until Sunday.
The world champions have never taken my breath away like they did in 2001, no one has taken the ball in hand an ghosted through a defence like Greenwood, Balshaw, Healy, or Guscott.
That ended on Sunday.
Strettle, Catt, Geraghty, Flood, Rees.
For the first time in six years England players were offloading, beating men, using their heads, and doing their utmost to keep the ball alive.
For the first time in four years England had a back row.
Rees, Easter, Worsely.
Finally, a back row with the mobility to impact a game. Even Joe Worsely started playing properly again. Picking up the ball in open play and making 20-metre runs like he did when he was 19.
Young players using their heads and their hearts, taking the fight to the six-nations favourites - and out-classing them. Possession, territory, phases, passes. England beat France on every stat.
Two tries to nil, running rugby, an attack from your own half that results in a try.
It might have only been one game, but, as Geherty went past his fifth French defender, in Flood's offloads, in Catt's awareness, and in Rees' ever-present destruction and ball-carries there was hope.
Of course, some things haven't changed since 2003 - Jonny was injured and Tindal still hasn’t realised there are men outside him.
But there was potential in that performance, I could dream again.
International managers and selectors are worrying over their team selections. Those of us playing Fantasy Cricket are also beginning to panic about our fina line-up for the opening phase, but let's not forget the most important selection process of them all: The Commentary Team Selection.
It's hard being part of a commentary team: there is history; there are icons of the profession to live up to. Should a contender aspire to be Richie Benaud or John Arlott?
What is more important to finesse: a Boycottesque hat fetish, or a Tony Greig-style love affair - digging keys and pens into the crease?
To make matters worse, for the up-and-coming young commentator, there is a choice of medium to work in. No longer is it simply a matter of refining your wireless technique. Nowadays you must worry about whether to hone your writing skills and look to join the recently-formed but already world-famous GU Over-by-over commentators. Perhaps you'd best focus on a suave and sophisticated look and go head-to-head with the debonair Mark Nicholas on Channel 9? How about trying to marry a combination of old-fashioned Test Match Special radio pace and tones with the more frenetic style favoured by Radio Five Live?
Across the board, there are qualities you must acquire, in abundance. An encyclopaedic knowledge of the game - and not just the form of the game you are currently commentating on. For the World Cup, you must also demonstrate your familiarity with Test Cricket as you will be called upon to compare players' form in the different disciplines.
Of course, it's far easier now, as there are numerous stats available to you at the press of a button: you won't have to leaf through thousands of pages of Wisden to check your facts, nonetheless, this is still probably the hardest aspect to master. Then you must also possess either charm or an aspect of eccentricity that renders you a figure of affection not ridicule or global hatred.
This will be a hard act to get right.
If working on any interactive coverage, you must balance the quick put-downs and insults you feel like hurling at your correspondents, with the need to be gracious and welcoming, even to Johnny-Come-Latelies, who really do deserve a hard slap.
On TV you have to judge when the picture tells a better story than your enthusiastic but perhaps misplaced words can. For the radio commentators it is even more difficult. Are your listeners also following TV broadcasts? Are they logged on to their computers enjoying coverage that may be slower, but sometimes more accurate? How can you keep the old-timers on board and still be fun enough to attract a new young audience?
Right now I suspect that most aspiring members of a Commentary Team, whoever they are, wherever they are, heartily wish that the only selection process they faced was whether they were good enough for The Wide World of Sport.
Move closer though, and the bulbous exoskeletons and wavy antennae of your imaginings are replaced by red faces and spindly frames – their muscles twanging with tensility while they engage in ritual callisthenics. Reality intercedes. This is the warm-down.
At a whistle from their insect overlord, the workers discard tools and fitfully disperse. Apart from one. A solitary beast, more like a lone wolf than an ant, he continues to hunt balls even as the gloaming creeps around us. An hour later, and he is finally ready for an interview. Such are the vicissitudes of perfectionism.
In many ways he is an ordinary young man. At first, affected by a penury of banal expressions, he seems embarrassed and uneasy, more like a rabbit than a wolf or an ant. But when I ask him about the upcoming game, his eyes take on a predatory gleam. Like an owl, or maybe an eagle.
“Looking forward to it. Big occasion. Fellas have been talking this one up all year.”
“I’d be lying if I said no.”
Would you be lying if you said yes?
“No.” he says.
This intrigues me. Is he lying about his nerves, or lying about his lying if he said no? The word ‘enigmatic’ is jotted and underlined in my notebook.
On his craft and his critics, he is more effusive: “From the stand, it looks easy. ‘You just catch it and throw it’ they say. Like they could do it, if they tried. But how many of them do you see doing it in a big match?” he snorts derisively. “They may be heroes in their back gardens, but they all freeze on the big stage.” He fixes me with an MRI-scan stare. I get an uncomfortable urge to gulp. His normal mode of speech combines the terse lucidity of a Hemingway with the insight of a Scott Fitzgerald. Some existential anti-heroism is mixed in there as well. If he had not been blessed with so many luminous talents, he would have made a very fine advertising copywriter.
I ask him about his new contract: “It’s about respect. Different sports I know, but at Wimbledon - they’re on savage money. Plus the perks – the strawberries and cream. I’ve only four years left at the top. 55 a week they offered me! After we had agreed 60! I was trembling with anger when I heard that. It showed a lack of respect, which I can’t have. I need to be able to look clearly at myself in the mirror.” he says, rubbing the grooved upper bridge of his nose thoughtfully.
His tongue-lashings are infamous. “I’ve a bit of a temper, yeah. What’re you goin to do about it?” This writer once likened him to a lizard catching and swallowing flies, before expelling them as repentant, shrunken turds. Needless to say, any likening was done well out of earshot.
He has a frightening memory. As longevous as an elephant’s, as vicious as a mobster’s. Here’s his view of the Heeground incident: “Two years before, he’d accused me of feigning to throw the ball to him. I’d waited long enough. I threw it hard. The ball was caught (I think). Have that, you c**t, I said. And don’t stand over me sneering about fake throws.” he says, with a snarl so menacing that my body hair winces.
His agent, who has been listening and must have sensed Ray’s agitation, comes over to interrupt us: “That’s enough now, Mr. Journo. Ray needs to get home for his tea.” she says. He rises from his plastic bucket seat and then gives me an apologetic shrug, replete with meaning. I infer: this is the game now – the agents, the glamour, the constant demands on your time – it’s all bulls**t, but necessary. The woman drags him away by the arm, clucking and pecking at him like a mother hen. Once more he seems like an unremarkable youth. But beneath the ginger curls, osseous brainpan and cerebrospinal fluid, there lurks the cerebral cortex of a champion ball-boy. On Saturday, no doubt he will prove it.
For Craig Bellamy, the 37-year-old Bolton manager-cum-spokesman, there will be just enough time for hair and make-up before heading off for the day's first press conference. His Communications Team will brief him on the expected barbs from his aged counterpart, Arsene Wenger, ahead of tomorrow night's top-of-the-table clash.
With the 78,000-seater Dubai Sports City stadium sold out, both managers will be encouraged to act the showman for the TV viewers. Last month's Dubai fixture, Tottenham v Birmingham City, failed to beat the NBA's 76ers-Magic clash in the global ratings. Despite a week-long promotion featuring the best efforts of Spurs' tub-thumping David Ginola, viewing figures fell-off after a goalless first half.
The League's principal sponsors – Emirates, SAB Miller and Visa – are demanding a better show this time round. Bolton-Arsenal may well be the deciding game of the 2017 Premier League season, but Sky still needs sexy sound-bites to sell to channel surfers in Emerging Markets. They're selling this one as 'Fire and Ice'.
For Arsenal, this will be their fifth League appearance of the season in Dubai, and their 14th in the three years since Emirates stumped up $1.5billion to stage 10 games a season in the Gulf. They will tack on a one-day meet-and-greet for fans and sponsors in Mumbai before heading to Munich for a one-match quarter final against Bayern in the Champions League. Bolton, last year's English champions, have opted out of Champions League in favour of a promotional tour with Shanghai Telecom. Bellamy is now one of the most recognisable faces on Chinese TV.
Cheer squads from the official Bolton and Arsenal supporters clubs have been arriving throughout the week, many of them stretching the trip into a week-long holiday. Dubai expects to bump football tourist numbers by 15% this year, adding $850m to the economy. The Liverpool-Manchester United game on New Year's Day brought in $120m alone.
Football is the star attraction but by hosting the 2015 Rugby World Cup, along with the bi-annual 20/20 Cricket World Cup and annual golf, horse racing and tennis championships, plus warm-weather training facilities, and three of the World's Top20 golf courses, sports-related business is now one of Dubai's key drivers. One US branding specialist recently estimated sport adds $5billion per annum to the value of 'Brand Dubai'. Delegations from Dublin, Moscow and Tallinn have come to town to study the business model.
Back in Bolton, Garry Hardaway, manager of Real Trotters, won't be watching the game. Just three years after being formed his team of amateurs have a chance of promotion from the Northern Counties Division 2. A crowd of 1,500 is expected for the game with Witton Albion.
The TV cameras will be there. Hardaway has a production meeting with Channel 4 to discuss script changes.
Ex FC Narvik striker and inventor of the goal celebration Otto Bredesen has a lot to answer for: "Scoring a goal can only be comparable to sex and like any good orgasm the secret is in trying to prolong the moment," he explained in the now derelict stadium on the rugged border shared by Norway and Sweden . Translated loosely as "Otto's vinegar-strokes moment," http://www.milkinfirst.com
Throughout the decades, fans have been treated to magic and momentous moments of post goal derangement; the defining moment for many epitomised in the undiluted ecstasy emanating from that goal by Marco Tardelli - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v
Inevitably, controversy has often followed these moments like an unwanted bedfellow with referees and coaches having to control over-exuberant acts that have threatened the image of the game. On other occasions celebrations have caused debate on the front pages, condemnation and sometimes just plain confusion: Ex England assistant-manager and pioneer of new technology Steve Mclaren was unusually baffled by his own statistics after one pre-World Cup game, having to send back his prozone results to the Texan laboratory. Prozone famously charts the average position of players on the pitch throughout the game but Mclaren hadn’t factored in time when the ball wasn’t in play. As a result of this his post match insistence that “Crouchy was everywhere in that game” was correct if only he had added the caveat, “in his goal celebrations.” Bewilderment reigned again only last week as Craig Bellamy wheeled away in the Nou Camp penalty area announcing his “golf swing” to the watching millions. After the game and following considerable pressure from team-mates he confessed, "I lost control for a few seconds,” and rightly so. Golfing coach David Leadbetter explains, “This sends out the completely wrong sort of message to youngsters; how are we supposed to attract more people to the game of golf after that? His technique was terrible;.” Leadbetter has a valid point and pressure has increased on the goal scorer to round things off with choreography that is not only artistic but also technically proficient.
Despite or maybe even because of the negative publicity, there’s no denying that the beautiful game now needs a goal celebration; so whether it’s a seven foot robot, Fowler’s snort, Gazza’s visit to the dentist, Klingsman’s dive, Bebeto’s baby or that bloke who played for Fulham’s mask; it’s time to finally salute you Sir Otto Bredesen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v