Saturday, March 31, 2007
Ellis made it to the ground an hour before the start still under the influence of the acid. He decided to gulp half a dozen amphetamines as a "precautionary measure". Next, as Chuck Brodsky sings on his album 'The Baseball Ballads", "Time came to go on out there/ Down the corridor/The walls were a little bit wavy/There were ripples in the floor". Before taking the mound, Ellis found a female friend in the first row who always supplied him with Benzedrine when he was in town, which he added to his pre-match meal.
After warm-up it was game on. His action was wild. Wilder than usual. Ellis was used to pitching on amphetamines, in fact he depended on them to crank himself up, to the extent that, for 12 years he wouldn't pitch without them. This was different; Ellis actually bounced a few early pitches. Struggling but smiling strangely, he walked 8 batters and hit another, but his manager left him in and he found some kind of rhythm. In Brodsky's words, "Sometimes he saw the catcher/Sometimes he did not/Sometimes he held a beach ball/ Sometimes it was a dot". Ellis didn't bother to follow the score at all and, feeling that his teammates knew that something was up, decided it was advisable to avoid all eye contact with them. Batters would vanish and reappear and while his pitches seemed to be over the plate he couldn't be sure they were reaching. Each pitch had an after burn. Brodsky again: "Dock was tossing comets/ That were leaving trails of glitter/At the 7th inning stretch/He still had a no-hitter". Surviving a scare or two, Ellis got his no hitter and his name and record of the game went to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown.
Ellis could be wild and combative. He once deliberately threw at all the consecutive Cincinnati Reds batters he could as revenge for disrespectful comments, played in curlers after criticism of his hairstyle, and sat in the stands (with a gun in his pocket) amongst hecklers who called him "nigger." He revealed the truth about the San Diego game in 1984. Dock Ellis cleaned up after reading about someone shaking a baby to death, and realizing he couldn't tell how tightly he held his baby son. He is now a drug counsellor.
"We're in Guyana now right and we have to go to the cricket because Gavin insists and he's paying right and Alisha wants to keep him happy cos she wants them to get married which is sensible yeah cos her horse Darcy is very expensive to keep up.
"It's England v Ireland yeah though quite a lot of the Irish are Australians and one of our blokes is Irish and both sides have got a South African so like that's cricket for you. Gavin tries explaining to us about the Super Eights right and after about ten minutes of two points from the first round and who's seeded from what yeah I lose the will to live so I'm like, what you're telling me is the ones that lose go out yeah and in the end somebody wins. Duh. So at first me and Alisha are talking about shoes yeah while Gavin's making like expert comments on the game to this seriously wanky bloke he's made friends with.
"Our Irish one gets out straightaway so like he doesn't have to battle his divided loyalties for long lol. Then our captain gets out too and Gavin looks for a moment like he's going to cry right so Alisha and I keep quiet cos you have to respect people's pain. And we start to think, suppose England lose this right what is going to happen to like national self-esteem yeah and will we still be able to tell Irish jokes?
"So hopes are pinned on KP yeah who's like our cricket king of bling and does lots of adverts. Gavin's wanky mate who is some kind of media person right with stupid glasses and a bit of a fondness for the old nose candy if you know what I mean is going on about establishing momentum right but it seems to me yeah, it would help if our lot could just play cricket a bit better. Call me naïve lol.
"After a bit it seems that English people are able to breathe again yeah but no, KP is out and then here comes Freddie right doing like, I'm big and tough and professional yeah, funny last time we saw him he was propping up the bar in Saint Lucia burbling on about how beautiful his kids are yawn yawn. He's supposed to be off the sauce now right after being exposed in the papers by certain people so you could say Alisha and me have done a service to English cricket. He does OK yeah but now the whole thing gets to be quite frankly pretty boring right but I'm sort of beginning to see that it's all about hanging in there yeah, and then Collingwood who is like a gritty northerner right plays very well in gritty northerner stylee and we end up not too bad.
"So in the break I'm chatting to this quite cute Aussie guy from the row behind us yeah and his view is that cricket is like a microcosm of life right. So I'm like, you mean it goes on and on and on and then in the end you give up and die. And he says no it's like a test of character so I'm like, what, to play or to watch? Lol. But he tells me about Shane Warne who makes strong batsmen cry yeah and then he says it's all about courage in adversity and mental domination right and one false move and the tide of a match can turn and I can see that like Gavin's keen on cricket but this guy is like religious.
"So all through the second half right I stay there and watch the microcosm of life yeah while Alisha goes to sleep and Gavin and Media Prat have one of those endless bloke conversations which sound friendly but are all scoring points off each other yeah you know the kind. But mental domination right well I'd say hard to spot yeah all I can really see is like slow grinding kind of grind and we almost don't win but in the end we do.
"So it seems there's like a mystery in cricket somewhere right which has a deep effect on people yeah but so far I haven't like had this revealed to me by the England team. The cute Aussie guy says this is quite natural and I have to see Australia play yeah and then I'll understand everything."
That the sudden-death decider concept has been tried and failed in Major League Soccer suggests the idea is already dead in the water, that fans shouldn't be worried. It isn't, and they should be.
There is a very strong lobby that would support the creation of more set-plays in football. This multinational, billion dollar industry would be delighted to see football provide more drama, more decisive moments, more often. It is the sports betting industry.
It is an industry in sync with new media and has proved capable of accessing global markets. European sports betting revenues are expected to rise from $110m in 2004 to $3bn in 2009, according to a report by the UK's Juniper Research. The global value of sports betting is estimated to rise to $6.9billion by 2009, and this is without the world's two biggest markets, the US and China, officially endorsing gambling. "Should this situation change, then quite clearly the figures would be revised upwards to reflect this," concludes the report.
It is extremely likely this increasing wealth will lead to the bookies wanting a greater say in sports' decision making.
Now, betting on football is not the option available to punters - the UK's leading online bookies offer odds on sports as diverse as AFL, rallying, ice hockey and darts - but football is the world game. And it is ripe for intervention.
Unlike cricket, baseball or golf, football provides only a limited number of bet options. Recent reports from India claim Asian bookies are offering offer-by-offer bets: number of wides, runs scored, number of sixes. Football, a largely free flowing game, cannot match this innovation.
Bookies are trying to spice things up. Football betting has come a long way since the Pools Coupon. Digital pitch-side banners are now inviting punters to bet on the identity of the next scorer, with odds changing mid-game. The sports betting industry is itching to innovate.
As TV switches to digital, and more viewers become comfortable making online payments, it is inevitable we will see closer synergies between the broadcaster and the bookie. Sky, paying big bucks for the Premier League, and with no more than two teams ever in with a shout of winning, has plenty of second-rate product it needs to spice up. The sports betting industry may be only to keen to help enliven a mid-table clash between, say, Middlesbrough and Reading. Penalty shoot-outs, with the prospect of real-time betting - 'press the Red button to back Lampard to score at 11/4', is an enticing idea. 'It matters more when there's money on it,' as Sky's very own Sky Bet puts it.
Don't expect the bookies to start shouting their support for change, but only a mug would bet against them. The bookie always wins.
OK you lot. Straussy has been using his time wisely, he's found the GUSportsblog - yeah, I don't know what this is either Colly, but seems like it's pretty important. A bunch of people write things about us, and he's picked this one, which really hurts: those tossers back in England reckon that we're "second-class chokers". Now I don't know how that makes you lot feel, but I'm fucking gutted. Obviously we're here to win, but if we can't win, then sod this being best of the fucking rest. We'll make it our business to be first-class fucking chokers like the Saffers - not you Kevin.
Not the best of starts, really - in fact a pretty piss-poor display from the top order.
And well done Ed! You led the fucking way. Whose side are you on, for fuck's sake? When I said that I wanted to see the Irish lads' stumps hit, I didn't mean yours. KP wasn't like this against the Saffers last year eh Kev? Well don't sulk Ed - not yet anyway.
Now before any of you say anything, let me remind you that I'm not in the team for my batting. Being caught behind is just something that happens when the bowling's too damn good - and that clubby was really good. And I'm going to sue the BBC for that photo Straussy's just found on their fucking website - who's representing Kate Middleton?
Ian: I feel for you, I really do. A shocking decision - I could see the daylight between bat and ball from here, without the binoculars. But honestly I don't know what to do about you - you used to hit bowlers like this all round those club grounds in Birmingham when you were 12. And that was poor, Kevin, to appeal like that. It doesn't look good, especially as your own performance left a lot to be desired. 48 is a fucking disgrace - you were supposed to have studied the Hayden tapes. And you know you're in my fantasy team.
Fred, Fred, Fred: I'm lost for words. This was your chance, your big fucking chance of redemption, and it didn't go well, did it? You'd better bowl your little pink heart out now, boy, or that's your career down the fucking Swannee.
Colly: damn fine batting. Fuck, if the rest of you could bat as well as Paul I'd be less likely to be bald by the end of this tournament.And I've more than that in common with Punter before you start.
Badge: fucking ace bit of mind-twisting there in the 47th. We all know Porterfield fancies himself as a shit-hot fielder, so nice stuff - with any luck that'll rock'em a bit before they start batting. Shame about the Morgan catch, but now maybe you'll all learn something from seeing him field. How many runs did he save in the final power-play? Yep at least 20.
What's that Ravi? Sorry - didn't notice. I was talking to Athers about tomorrow's fishing. What did you get?
OK you lot, go and do something for 10 mins, I don't care what. I've got a packet of madeleines to eat.
At the end of the match, we caught up with just a few brief words that the England Captain had for his troops - and we are finding it increasingly hard to believe that they haven't busted us yet. It's almost as though Michael WANTS us to publish his briefings
Right, you lot, settle down now: that was good, but not that good. Two early wickets against Ireland is not like getting the Punter and Haydos out fast, is it?
Ed: that drop in the 11th was an absolute shocker. Bloody square leg, all you had to do was catch the fucking ball. I'm not at all pleased with you, and I hope, I just fucking hope, that we're not going to find any Aussies or Kiwis in your family heritage because I don't know if I can trust you any more. Straussy - I hope you're feeling good - I'll have to persuade Duncan, but I'm looking at you for next time out.
Ravi: I like you - you watched those bloody run-out tapes, didn't you? It was ridiculous to have your throw referred and a nonsense that we didn't get that wicket. Do you bowl at all?
Now you bowling boys: did you actually see what I did to Niall? Yeah, ball in flight, line and length, it was beautiful, wasn't it? Straussy - get it on that youtube thing and get the number of views up to triple figures will you? See that Colly? That's how to bowl if you're a batsman who bowls. Look and learn - your time will come.
But I have to ask the question, why the fuck is it all left up to me? I've fielded like a demon and bowled like a professional, and what the fuck have you lot done?
Apart from you, obviously Monty: neat and tidy, kept it clean and tight and 2 fucking wickets. I love you and so do both the England fans in the crowd.
Fred - I liked it at the end and I bet Botham did up in the box. One more wicket and you would have had to buy a jug - for us obviously, not you.
Get on the bus now - it's late and you're all up early in the nets tomorrow.
Friday, March 30, 2007
Cousins’ star-studded fact file includes the 2005 Brownlow Medal and a 2006 premiership medallion but his prowess on the field has only served to highlight his frailties off it. Ben’s father has spoken publicly of the ‘challenges’ facing his high profile son. His club, West Coast, has suspended him for what it describes as ‘personal and private issues’. Sometimes the first step in overcoming a problem is admitting that you’re speaking in euphemisms.
If you view sport as a substitute for war, then Aussie Rules is the ‘Vietnam War’ of football codes. It’s a guerilla game played all over an expansive field. There’s no offside rule so it becomes a game of skirmishes between equally matched opponents. The ability to run, to reinforce, to make the contest is everything.
Ben Cousins, the centreman, runs gut-busting half marathons on match day. He rides fearful hip-and-shoulder bumps every time he goes into a pack to get the ball. He’ll cop a jumper-punch from a no-good tagger when the umpy looks away, then bounce up and kick a long goal, with alacrity, from the boundary line.
In a game loaded in favour of attack, the best defensive outfits have players prepared to wind-sprint to shepherd a teammate, or to dive full-length to smother the ball off the boot of an opponent. Ben Cousins does all that and more. But at 28, with his life in turmoil, he’s deciding whether to go into rehab or go it alone in order to save his career.
Naturally, in a nation as obsessed with sport as Australia, the PM has weighed into the debate, urging the AFL to toughen up its drug policy from ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ to ‘zero tolerance’. With newly released police wire taps implicating more players, the Australian game has a journey into its own heart of darkness to complete. Round one can’t come soon enough.
On Saturday night, the grand finalists of the last two years, Sydney and West Coast, meet in the game of the round before 60,000 at the Olympic Stadium. Bitter rivals, they have split 2 pennants by less than a goal. The Eagles, without Ben Cousins, still run out with an awesome midfield led by the code’s best player, Chris Judd. The Swans will be at full strength and seeking ‘revenge’ for the loss of the 2006 Grand Final by a lonely point. Adam Goodes, who burned in the epic last quarter of that game, believes the Swans are fitter than ever and can reclaim the title this year. But he would say that. The Swans to win by 2 points.
In other matches, my selections are Melbourne to beat St Kilda, Fremantle to be too strong for Port, Brisbane at home over Hawthorn, Adelaide but only just against Essendon, Richmond to account for March champions Carlton, the Western Bulldogs to see off the improving Geelong and finally Collingwood to dispatch the Kangaroos.
But nothing could be further from the truth: When Ballack arrived in London, he declared his liking for fish and chips, with peas. He did not elaborate on whether he meant the mushy variety, or how the dish measured up to a currywurst even. Yet his hunger was not in question.
This stems from his appetite to succeed as a professional. A trait that first surfaced when he was a child growing up in East Germany. At the age of 16, he came out from anesthesia after an operation to smooth the cartilage in his knee only to be told he would never be able to play competitive sports again. Six months later - he did.
His determination most famously came to light, during the 2002 World Cup semi final, when Ballack was shown a yellow card that meant he would miss the final. But instead of dwelling on the incident, he burst into the box four minutes later and scored the winner.
Despite the criticism, he has shown a hunger to succeed at Chelsea too. Away from home in this season's Champions League group match against Werder Bremen, he took over penalty duties from Frank Lampard to dispatch a confident shot into the roof of the net. He has won 75 per cent of his tackles this season and is certainly in the thick of things, as he has committed the most fouls out of all Chelsea players.
The main problem is that Ballack and Lampard are like two peas in a pod: both goal-hungry central midfielders. With Lampard remaining the focal point of Chelsea play, the German has looked as out of place as fresh veg in Iceland. A point that did not pass by Germany's football Kaiser Franz Beckenbauer: "Frank Lampard is stronger and takes his [Ballack's] position. The game mostly passes him by," he noted.
Yet all the signs point to change: three weeks ago Ballack scored the winner to send Chelsea through to the quarter finals of the Champions League. He delivered a cute chipped through-ball for Didier Drogba to score in the Carling Cup Final and last week he scored against Sheffield United.
Ballack, like Drogba before him, simply needed time to adapt to the Premiership. Jose Mourinho, who has steadfastly stuck by Ballack despite his lack of form, is now beginning to see his loyalty bear fruit. And with all trophies still to play for, it would seem 'The Special One' knew all along, that when the chips are down, Ballack will show the hunger required.
- "600 francs, please."*
- "Ia ora na, journalists get in for free, right?"
She shakes her head.
- "But I work for an international sports web site with a global readership."
She holds out her hand expectantly. I turn on the charm.
- "I'm writing a report on today's game, it'll be great for the promotion of Tahitian football."
-"600 francs, please."
Maybe we should print official cards or plastic badges, that always impresses the girls. I hand over my six pieces, she gives me a ticket, a cold can of soda, and a pearly-white smile. When I emerge on the plateau, I am suddenly breathless. Nothing to do with the steepness of the slope, it's the sheer magnificence of the landscape that takes my breath away. Every time.
Moorea's volcanic cliffs tower above the stadium's single stand. Thin wisps of white cloud cling on lazily to the dark pillars of basalt. Everywhere, the lush vegetation sparkles with a fresh polish, bestowed by last night's heavy tropical rain. The pitch also has several shades of green, but in sharp contrast with its surroundings, it is nearly flat and does not have any trees growing on it. The stand can hold a couple of hundred people and is fairly packed. Other spectators are scattered along the touchlines, sitting in the shade of mango trees, or watching from the back of pick-up trucks parked behind the goals. No flags or flares, but plenty of flip-flops and flora, as Tahitian ladies love to wear a crown of flowers on Sundays. If the atmosphere was anymore relaxed, we'd all be sound asleep.
Today, Maharepa host Pihaena in a League of Moorea play-off clash. The real match won't start for a while, but the reserves game is on. The second half is just getting underway as I walk around the pitch, saying my hellos to the spectators and substitutes that I know. Pihaena Va'a is my new rowing club, and I have enjoyed a few kickabout sessions with some of the players here, until I realised chasing 17 year old lads down the wing was absolutely pointless and I decided to switch to rowing for good. I am not much better at it, but at least I get to do it sitting down. And speaking of sitting down, I join my friend Metua behind the goal.
- "Ia ora na, Offside, you've come to see St-Étienne play Toulouse?"
He is referring to the teams' jerseys: the purple of Pihaena and Maharepa's green. Tahitian people love their football. Recently, satellite dishes have brought the international game into many a home and local connoisseurs will eloquently discuss Lyon's lack of an efficient striker or Chelsea's famous midfield diamond formation. Metua informs me that we're up 1-0, but he has barely finished his sentence when Pihaena's goalkeeper does a superb Paul-Robinson-against-Croatia impression to a chorus of laughter from both sets of supporters. All square. As I said, the pitch is nearly flat.
Metua's 17-year-old son, Heiva (yes, the one who's too fast for me), plays centre forward for Pihaena. A sizable section of his dad's fisherman income has gone into a flashy pair of bright-red boots. Heiva repays him by firing a stinging 20-yard free-kick towards the bottom corner. The keeper saves but Bill scores from the rebound. 2-1 to Pihaena and Metua's smile is well worth the price of those boots. The rest of the second half is lost on me as we immerse ourselves in a conversation that meanders in and out of vital topics such as fishing, the weather, and the upcoming canoe race next weekend. Maharepa eventually equalise from a corner kick and the game ends on a logical 2-2 scoreline.
During the interval between the two games, kids invade the pitch and start kicking a ball around like they do all over the world. I make my way to the dugout to say hello to Richard, the Pihaena reserves coach. I ask him for his analysis of the game.
-"I switched them from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 when we got the lead, but we couldn't hold on. We're not very good at defending set pieces. We'll have to work on that in training."
He doesn't care much about the result, since the reserves follow the first team around and play the same fixtures, play-off or play-down, regardless of how well they do themselves. Their league table is fairly meaningless and their position won't get them promoted nor relegated as Moorea only has one level of football. Richard is more concerned about instilling a little discipline in the young lads and getting them to show up for training regularly, and on time, a concept that can be difficult to grasp for some of the local boys. He proudly tells me about how he's dealt with the more troublesome elements in his squad.
-"At least now they don't smoke pakalolo during training and I also make sure they don't have a joint before a game. Otherwise, they spend the second half gazing at the landscape. Not much I can do once the game is over, but that's a start."
As the real game gets underway, I sit with Richard and Mario, old wise head and midfield anchor of the reserves team. I ask them to explain to me how Tahitian football is organised. The league of Moorea has 8 teams, who play each other home and away. After that, the top four go into a play-off (another set of home and away games), the bottom four into a play-down. The champions get to play the following season in the league of Tahiti, the bottom team gets to play the following season with the shame.
There are also two cup competitions. La Coupe de Polynésie is contested by all Polynesian clubs, from 118 islands scattered over a maritime area roughly the size of western Europe. A logistical nightmare, the winner of which gets into the Champions League. No, not that one. The one in which champions from the other countries of Oceania meet: Fiji, Vanuatu, the Salomon Islands, New Zealand, etc. Then, there is la Coupe de Tahiti, whose winner qualifies for an early round of la Coupe de France and gets to travel to France to get knocked out by a fourth division side.
Meanwhile, as we chat, we're missing a good game. Plenty at stake here: if Maharepa win, they could clinch the title with three games to spare. Pihaena must win to they keep their title hopes alive but will still have to rely on kind results elsewhere. Consequently, tackles are flying thick and fast. The technical level isn't great but both teams are producing commendable efforts to keep the ball on the deck, and the fact that the center circle is waterlogged from last night's rain forces some intriguing wing play. There is some gambeta going on but the high grass and uneven surface are not helping. A couple of Zidane roulettes nearly come off and a lovely attempt at a Cruijff turn ends up with both players tangled up on all fours by the corner flag. So, nil-nil at half-time, and we can resume our conversation.
I ask Richard where the next Tahitian football star is to be found. He grimaces and tells me he doesn't see it happening any time soon. Only a couple of local players have ever made it to the top flight in France. The latest being Marama Vahirua, aka the Tahitian Maradona, an attacking midfielder who was scouted by Nantes and is currently helping OGC Nice in their relegation battle. He is famous in France for celebrating every one of his goals by going down on one knee and miming a paddle stroke in tribute to his oceanic homeland.
Richard bemoans the lack of infrastructure, discipline and proper coaching holding back Tahitian football. But above all, he cites the lack of mental toughness as the main reason why so few young players break through. They have it too easy, here. Vahirua left Tahiti and his family for Nantes when he was thirteen. Can you imagine what it's like for a kid from the islands to have to get up at 6 to attend training in Brittany in the heart of winter? And being pitted against kids from the rough suburbs of French cities for whom a successful football career is a ticket out of hell? It takes a special kind of mindset. Richard goes on to tell me about this young lad from Bora Bora who was scouted last year by French Top 14 rugby outfit Toulon. He was offered a contract on a plate but turned it down, and shunned the opportunity to play alongside Tama Umaga because he couldn't bring himself to leave his island paradise. Richard shakes his head.
-"He has amazing potential but he doesn't even know it."
Back on the pitch, the second half starts with a bang. Actually, make that two bangs. Pihaena open the scoring after an intricate move down the right wing is crisply converted by a low drive from the edge of the area. Maharepa immediately equalise through a superb, 25-yard dipping free-kick that leaves the Pihaena goalkeeper motionless. 1-1, and that's the way it finished. Maharepa are now in a great position to win the title. Pihaena have lost all hope for this season but will take some pride from having held the future champions to a draw on their home patch.
I suppose I could have told you more about the details of the game if I hadn't so unprofessionally gotten side-tracked into idle conversation and gobsmacked contemplation of the landscape. I also realise that this is a very inadequate attempt at evaluating the state of Tahitian football at grassroots level. But I will tell you one thing. From the time I got there until the end of the second match, the grass on the pitch had easily grown half an inch.
* One euro is worth 119.33 Pacific Francs. You work it out.
It is long overdue that some one finally stood up to football. These scummy companies masquerade as sports teams to steal our money and make rapists into millionaires. And at last some one has exposed them.
With comprehensive figures from eleven such firms, this noble organisation has attacked a sport that is subject to too little scrutiny in every aspect of its business. And the upshot of this investigation is hardly surprising.
Intelligent Giving condemns clubs that donate less in a year than one club pays Schevchenko in a week. It condemns one club in particular for donating just £70,000 to charity despite having a billionaire owner. And it condemns any excuse for this as worthless next to billion pound revenues.
Of course not all charitable work is definable in cash. Players visit schools and hospitals, clubs run football in the community schemes, and both work to assist education schemes for poor kids.
But, Intelligent Giving doesn’t waste time calculating a financial figure for that. And rightly so. We all know that clubs don’t do this benevolently. That is all self interest, helping to hook or retain a lucrative young fan base through subsidised gimmicks.
And the fact that clubs often run up huge losses, or at best small profits, is no excuse at all. After all, a billion pounds runs through their collective coffers each year thanks to massive TV rights deals, corporate sponsorships, and ever rising ticket prices.
Much of that cash goes to footballers who no doubt waste their wages on flash cars and £100,000 watches that are definitely not bought in charity auctions at the Beckham estate.
Would it be so hard to pay these scummy men less to kick a ball around so that more money could go to charity? Most of them aren’t even very good. For every totemic Essien or Drogba is a weak ankled Ballack or Schevo, both of whom are as rubbish as, well, Essien and Drogba were in their first Premiership season.
So ignore the fact that Spurs gave six percent of revenues, or 70 percent of pre-tax profit to their charitable trust, (£4.5million). Ignore the fact that football clubs are in fact quite small businesses in a highly competitive market. Ignore as well that other companies like Sainsbury profit from the good will generated by selling red noses.
Because football is evil. And you must not be allowed to forget it before the next such expose, probably due in three days time.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
(A pub. A grumpy old local sits alone by the bar. Jim Reeves' "He'll Have to Go" is heard in the background. An athletic Frenchman enters.)
Greengrass: Alright, O? The usual?
Greengrass: Pint of Guinness, pint of Murphy's Ingrid! (To Offside)
Offside: Yeah. How was your weekend?
Greengrass: Fair to middling. Left town to avoid having to go to the pub and watch England. Had a barbecue, but our neighbour kept nipping off to check the latest non-score on his telly. The only sport apart from that was with Mrs. G.: trying to look busy while actually doing nothing. You know - squinting at the house, taking measurements, noting things down, muttering. And you?
Offside: Much the same. Slept in so I wouldn't have to watch the France game. I hear it wasn't pretty. Otherwise, a spot of blogging while pretending to be working on that translation with the really tight deadline. It's easy enough, I just have to be quick with the Alt-Tab keys if Mrs Offside watches over my shoulder.
(Ingrid sets two pints of the black stuff in front of them. Offside inspects his. There is a little shamrock drawn in the creamy white head.)
Offside: Thanks, Ingrid. Very thoughtful of you.
(Offside turns around and rolls his eyes at Greengrass, as if to say "that's a bit tacky, though".)
Offside: Cheers (They take a sip, Offside looks towards the door) Are we expecting anyone?
Pre-match team talk Thurs 29 March
Right lads, settle down and let's make this as painful, sorry painless, as possible.
It's not been a bad week - none of you did a Vincent, all wrists intact - stop sniggering Straussy, your job is to drive the Powerpoint. Liam will show you how when he puts down that Gameboy - yes I know and I don't care if it is the only"driving" he does these days (muffled laughter).
Ravi - put the paper down. Christ - how did you get a copy of the Daily Star round here? I fucking hope there's nothing in there about the water polo in the hotel pool last night. No? Good.
Down to business. We're up against the Irish tomorrow - that's all of us not just Straussy vs Ed Ha Ha! Anyone remember what happened last time we went head to head with them? Come on Fred 12-10-8 vs those two students you met in that Irish pub in Sydney doesn't count and you know you're off the Guinness if you want that contract renewing.
I don't know quite yet what I'll choose when I win the toss, but what I do know is that we'll never get anywhere without a solid opening batting performance and that's why you're all going to take a very close look at Matthew Hayden - yeah, I don't care whether you like the bugger or not, that's not the point. He bats, and bats well. For fuck's sake, you've had enough chances to study him close up and still none of you have learned.
Remember, runs win matches, I know, I know, you think that sounds simple, but let's face it you bastards, none of you have put us in that sort of position yet, have you?
Colly: I'm putting you in charge of run-outs - oh for fuck's sake you lot, you know perfectly well what I mean. Bell, you're hardly in a position to make jokes about run-outs are you? No - so all of you can stay behind with Paul and watch the Ponting videos, yeah yeah, that's Old Trafford and Tuesday afternoon, until you understand exactly what throwing the wicket down means.
Right here are Ireland's danger men and a youtube clip of the Irish beating Pakistan (sound of laptop being repeatedly hit). Straussy - you're keeping track of cricinfo news, what's up with youtube? Oh thank you ICC, thanks a bundle. Bunch of clowns.
So that's the batting and fielding - what's that Kevin? Catching? Surely to god I don't have to go over that again? You watch the ball, put your hands together and catch the bastard. It's not rocket science.
Moving on, we need bowling plans, and boy do we have them!
Jimmy, Jimmy: leave your hair alone for a minute will you - I've taken one mirror off you already, and I'll have that one as well. You're opening and you know what that means? Yeah taking wickets and I want more than just 2 this time - and you, Gloucester boy, yeah, Jon - don't get all excited. I want you to talk to Jimmy about swing bowling okay? Not your fucking hairstyles.
Liam: you're on at the other end and I want no wides from you Wideboy. All right Colly, it wasn't that funny. I've already said you'll be skippering when I rest my knee, so make sure your Dad's charged up his camcorder, but I'll shout from the balcony if anything needs doing. Just don't ask Fred okay?
Fred: first change as usual, and you'll be having an especially early night tonight and then it's over to Monty and Colly while I've got my feet up and those Aussies, sorry Irish, milk it for three an over.
Ravi: when the Irish lads are eight down, get warmed up for your go and in the mean time field near me and run like fuck after the ball - yeah the white round thing - once it goes past me.
OK, that's it. We'll have a debrief after the first innings, and I hope, I just fucking hope that it won't be a repeat ofthe last half-time talk. Now get to your jobs, and remember - I have faith in you all (aside to Collingwood - well some fucker has to ...)
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Both compete in disciplines that are only sporadically covered by the mainstream media, and the specialist press is not a lot better. Motor sport, well, Formula One gets plenty of column inches, with headlines and front covers regularly devoted to Jenson Button - who as I write has won but a single race. Road cycling has writers slavering over the Tour de France or a drugs scandal. Outside this, there is little coverage for sports in which competitors from the UK have a long and illustrious history of success.
During the ludicrous contest that was the BBC: "Sports Personality of the Year" , Andy Priaulx did not even make it to the short-list despite being a double World Champion. Nicole Cook was made to look insipid during the interviews because the BBC didn't bother to provide an interviewer who knew or cared anything about her sport.
Bradley Wiggins is an international success as a track and road cyclist, the first Englishman since Chris Boardman to finish a Tour de France and yet is virtually unknown here in the UK. Mark Cavendish, a World and European Champion in Track Cycling in 2005 when a mere 20 year old, has been signed by one of the most successful teams on the Pro-Tour. When did you last hear of him?
It is, in some ways, a complete farce because of all the sports this country ploughs lottery money into, the one that is outstandingly successful is cycling. Recently we won World Medals across the board and yet there was virtually no press coverage. Pages and pages are devoted every week to football: the Premiership, Champions League, UEFA Cup and yet we are far more likely to succeed in world terms in cycling than we are even to qualify for Euro 2008.
I realise that we are dealing with a chicken and egg situation: the public thirsts for stories of footballers and other high-profile sports people, on and off the pitch, court or park. The press has to take note of the demand and feed the fever. It is not the responsibility of the journalists to encourage support for lesser-publicised sports, but, if these sports get no coverage, how can the public begin to appreciate and enjoy the success this country has and will go on, producing?
I've only looked at two disciplines here: cycling and a small part of the world of motor-sport but I've been able to find World Champions aplenty. I could cast my net further and find champions in at least 5 other sports.
Do we, here at home, only take note of winners when they get column inches? Surely medals and wins are what should count?
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
You ain't got no history
18 leagues and 5 European Cups
that's what we call history” The Kop.
History, eh? The last bastion of the embittered fan. It certainly is a great history, that is if year zero was when Bill Shankly strode across the Pennines in 1959. Back then, no-one thought about whether they walked alone or not.
So what do we call history? Manchester United? Pah, another post-war myth. The establishment, Royal Arsenal? Hah, a pox on your nouvelle 1930s boom. Notts County, Everton, Accrington?
Having shunned the new fangled professionalism of the 1880s, Sheffield FC remains the oldest football club in existence.
In May, 1857, local cricketers, William Priest and Nathaniel Creswick, were feeling the aches and pains of early season rustiness. They concluded that the late night drinking sessions weren’t to blame, and that an organised winter sport was needed. Unlike most pub brainwaves, this one stuck out as being; a) a good idea, and b) something they followed up.
Five months later, as the East India Company was being overthrown in Dehli, Sheffield FC was formed. Being the only club, there were obvious advantages and disadvantages. As Max von Sydow knew, you need an opposition. Initially, members split into different teams, and representative games were played between married men and bachelors, professionals vs the rest.
But the best bit of being the first, you get to make up the rules. And we have Sheffield FC to thank for a number of today’s customs: corner kicks, throw ins, free kicks, floodlights, a crossbar, and, most spectacularly, heading the ball. Famously, when Sheffield ventured down to the Oval, the London gentry were reduced to fits of laughter by this practice. Rumour has it that Creswick wanted there to be daylight for a player to be called offside, while Priest wondered what you were doing if you weren’t interfering with play.
Only two clubs have been awarded the official FIFA order of merit; one is Real Madrid, the other is Sheffield FC.
They have never recaptured the glory days of 1904, when they won the FA Amateur Cup. However, they have returned to rude health in recent years. Currently celebrating their 150th year, they sit 10 points clear of Retford United in the NCE Premier Division (a notable league - it has seen Socrates plying his trade there in recent years).
They could be the only team at this level with replica shirts, at the seemingly optimistic price of £36.95, though the home shirt is sold out. This entrepreneurial spirit has enabled the club to buy its own ground for the first time ever, the Stadium of Bright. They draw a few hundred, mostly glory supporters, as they top the league.
Sven-Goran Eriksson, Michael Vaughan and Sepp Blatter are all members. The club also runs disability and even a women’s team; sadly for Sepp, they sport a baggy short.
The new ground is in an affluent area, in keeping with the game’s middle-class roots, but when they play local rivals Brigg Town (est. 1864), a familiar refrain can be heard from the famous grassy mount behind the goal:
“F*ck off Brigg Town FC
You ain’t got no history
A couple of drunk cricketers in a pub
Now that’s what I call history.”
In the Dressing Room
For some inexplicable reason, even after all the latest fiascos surrounding the England Team, no-one thought to check the dressing room, and yet again, a tape of the Captain's Debrief has found its way into the hands of unfriendly parties.
Michael Vaughan: Right. Duncan's gone back to the hotel already, so there's no use looking to cry on his shoulder. This is between US now, and Jesus Christ al-fucking-mighty. What the hell did you think you were doing out there?
I've seen better fielding from a bunch of under-fives.
KP: you came fucking close to dropping the Ashes in 2005, if you carry on like this, it'll be over the chair and not just a cane across your prize-winning arse.
Ian, while I was away, I was told you'd learned how to catch - bloody fuck. That was appalling - did you count how many runs we've got to add due to your incompetence?
Fred: well-tried, but I'll need a lot more from you with the bat.
Jimmy: 2 wickets may be acceptable from Paul - he's not even a bowler, but not a single bloody maiden from you, so don't get cocky, and for Christ's sake, stop looking in Ed's mirror. I'm confiscating that NOW.
Colly: thank Christ I've someone around to back me up. In case none of you noticed, I have a dodgy knee, am a hundred years older than most of you, and still managed to catch and run-out half the bloody Kenyans.
Right: I've only got 5 minutes now to calm down with a bit of Proust. You lot go off and bloody meditate or something. Anything, fuck knows, but get ready to post a massive first 10 over stand.
After the England innings, mysteriously the recorder was still running and we're now able to bring you the words of a very disappointed England Captain.
MV: Bell, I can't even bring myself to call you Ian any more. You are a disgrace. You have been a fucking master-class in soft dismissals. What the hell did you think you were doing? Please god don't tell me you were trying because if that's your pitiful attempt at a try, you'd be better off in a field somewhere in Wales.
Now I know you lot will think that I got out too early, but that was always my plan. I can't expect you bunch of whining pansies to understand but a captain has to see what's going on in the park, and I can't be expected to bloody work out your weaknesses unless I'm sitting on the balcony.
OK Ed - yes I do remember your name, you fucking ponce. I called you James for a joke, for christ's sake. Well, you were OK. 75 wasn't the big ton I asked for, and you're going to have to get some muscle in your strokes if we're to make the power-plays work for us. And yes, stop laughing all of you - I do know the difference between cricket and NHL power-plays. What do you think I've been fucking doing for the past year?
KP - I'll tell Duncan to hold off the caning for now, but don't get too fucking sure of your self. I'm thinking of moving you up the order next match, so I want you out in the nets, tomorrow, and that means early.
Colly - nice work Paul. I knew, I just knew that there would be one member of the team who would listen to me and do what they were fucking told. It may only have been 18, but you followed the plan.
Now the rest of you lot: don't think you're off the fucking hook here, just because we've scraped through to the Super 8s.
I've got the DVDs in the hotel lobby for you tonight - It's Only Fools and Horses boxed sets all round, so stay in your fucking rooms and watch them.
I'll be watching you every fucking step of the way until the 30th, so keep your noses clean - and no, I don't mean in that way, Fred you arsehole - and don't give those fucking tabloids any reason to get on our case.
Get on the bus now - and for fuck's sake that means NOW!
Monday, March 26, 2007
Consistently, strong teams have emerged from Europe. The Romans blazed the trail, dominating the European game for four centuries. As well as winning in Italy, they won in Spain, France, England, Greece, Croatia, Albania and Turkey. However, after refusing to play the Scots and taking a pasting in Germany they never had the same air of invincibility. Boardroom wrangles ensued and they threatened to slip into oblivion. Once all the spats, essentially about poor chairman selection, were cleared up, the Second Roman team bounced back to take Europe by storm again.
At the time it seemed like a gamble to set themselves up as the game’s governing body. But it worked. The Romans were responsible for the adoption of many of the games salient features: they financed the building of supporters’ centres across Europe; they introduced the system of numbering players; they introduced the first red card for persistent offenders; they organised and selected national teams including transferring captains from nation to nation; they trained and paid for all referees, and arranged most of the games, by 1200AD all Western Europe was playing the Roman game. All was not well however, the supporters began to complain about transparency and refereeing standards, finally, protesters organised a breakaway league beginning in Germany; this protest spread to include most of Northern Europe. The bitterest disagreements were over the nature of what was served at half time, whether referees were allowed to have sex, and translations of the rulebook into local vernacular languages.
This behemoth in Italy meant that Italy herself never managed to put out a national team of her own, a crying shame when you consider the talent they had at their disposal. Columbus, for example, was an Italian by birth but chose to play for Spain, for a while it looked like Spain, with Columbus taking gold cup after gold cup abroad, would be the team to beat, but they flattered to deceive. They were undone by the vagaries of the weather, poor tactical choices and because the Northern European teams copied their style, and used it more efficiently. Many Spanish will correctly point to the theft of large quantities of gold by the Northern Europeans as a contributory factor in their demise, but since the Spanish nicked it from the South Americans in the first place…
From the dawn of the Spanish period the game changed, with the discovery of large training camps teams could now practise in secret. Where before defence had been the key, now teams played an expansive game. For more than 200 years European teams engaged each other, in the main, on the training pitches of the World. The Europeans taught the world to play the game: by soundly beating them again, and again.
Then, like a breath of fresh air to the stagnant European scene: Bonaparte! Brutally offensive, insistent in both where and how the game was to be played; he took his French team to dizzying heights, whenever he was on the pitch the French were unstoppable. As his team rampaged through Europe the French selection committee ceded all decisions to Bonaparte. It looked like Bonaparte might achieve the first ever, clean sweep of Europe. With this dream in mind, Bonaparte, fool-hardily chose to play Russia, on frozen pitches in the middle of winter. The truth is that the Russians were beaten in their own back yard, but Bonaparte’s boys had forgotten their long johns. The bitter winter weather shrivelled the French, and the Russians wouldn’t allow their opponents into their heated dressing room at full time. For Bonaparte this was to be the end of his attempt at European unification. His legacy is nowadays clouded by what happened in the twilight of his career: As he got older he became more injury prone, often having to rest during games. The recently formed British team jointly with the Dutch and Germans, bored him into falling asleep during a vital game in Belgium, Bonaparte was beaten and forced into a tropical retirement.
Once the Americans started to play, the game wasn’t the same. Europe was undone by what had given it strength. Where before the divisions in Europe made each team stronger, now the younger, quicker, and more numerous Americans made use of the, “unlimited substitution,” rule that they cunningly proposed to swamp the national teams of Europe. The Americans, whenever they played in Europe, waited for the teams to tire before joining in when everybody had run out of substitutes; the tournaments were turned into a procession. All that time the Europeans thought nobody was watching their training sessions, but the Americans were just watching and learning.
Now, any sportsperson of reasonable ability can have a comfortable life through wages and sponsorship, and the top players in the big sports live like ancien régime aristocrats in a world of huge wealth unimaginable to their fans.
But their lives are still insecure - if they fall from favour, lose form, or get seriously injured, much of their income will disappear. How much money is enough to be safe? They have to make more, and more.
The top players mix with other wealthy people from business and showbiz. They have agents, business advisors, security men, drivers, domestic staff for their multiple homes.
They are paid massive amounts to make advertisements glorifying products they probably don't use.
They attend corporate events for their sponsors, where they have to be charming, make funny speeches, give free coaching and generally jump through hoops for the company that is footing the bill.
So now, an athlete is a brand, a commercial entity, a product. They know their value, their marketability, their transfer fee.
They can be bought and sold.
When they're approached to play, perhaps, slightly badly for a large amount of money. What's the difference? Like the old joke says, it's already established they're a whore, it's just a question of the price. Isn't it?
Or is it? At what point does integrity cease to matter?
'We are where we are' and the clock can't be turned back. There is massive money in modern sport and players can't be denied their fair share. But let's face it, corruption is there right the way through like Blackpool through a stick of rock - some of it's legal and some of it's criminal, and the lines are blurred. Playing badly because a Mumbai bookie paid you to, or playing badly because your sponsor insisted you attend a dinner last night..? Getting a great transfer deal but turning a blind eye to the way your agent arranged it..?
Can anything be done? Or is professional sport now a dirty business on a par with, and intertwined with, gambling, and those with ideals will just have to play for love in an amateur league?
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Take the start of last season. The received wisdom was that the clubs relegated from the Premiership would dominate. Instead, they amazed us with their ineptitude, failing to add to the paltry tally of three teams that have bounced straight back over the course of the last six seasons.
Of the rest, it was widely accepted that Reading were going backwards and Watford were going down. Sheffield United, meanwhile, were clearly going for broke, and going broke appeared to be the most likely fate to befall them. Nevertheless, up they all went.
This year things are slightly different. The Premiership’s three most recent refugees – Birmingham City, Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion – could all still win the mad dash for promotion, but with seven points separating the top seven teams, so could plenty of others.
Nerves are beginning to show. Of those top seven, only Preston North End were winners in a full programme of midweek fixtures. The free-spending duo of Derby County and Sunderland each needed a late goal to salvage a draw from a home game they were expected to win; Cardiff City shared four goals with a Southampton team who themselves are only three points from the play-offs; Birmingham, West Brom and Wolves all lost.
At the other end of the table, unpredictability also reigns. The fresh-faced arrivistes from League One are habitually discounted as relegation fodder, but over the last six years only Brighton have been forced to return to a life of smirking at Bristol City and visiting Vale Park. This season’s surprise package is Colchester United. Playing their first season at this level and surviving on attendances of just over 5000, they shrugged off the loss of their manager, many of their best players and their first four games to charge into a play-off spot before settling for the comfort of mid-table. The other new arrivals, Southend United and Barnsley, are hanging on grimly, just above the bottom three.
It’s a bottom three that includes QPR – a club whose boardroom shenanigans warrant an article of their own – and Leeds United, who are seemingly intent on proving that no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse, and whose captain wants to defect to the final member of the trio. That member is Luton Town, whose problems were not helped by responding to a haul of nine points from 14 games by selling their two best players.
In the latest in a series of crunch matches, this weekend sees Derby take on Cardiff while Birmingham’s trip to West Brom has the added spice of a West Midlands derby. At the bottom, Leeds visit Southend.
There are eight games to go; the climax to the season should be a real humdinger, whatever one of those is.
In the 135 years since that 0-0 draw they have played 665 games, won 316 and scored 370 more goals than they have let in.
But what was the greatest team of all?
Souness, Strachan, Dalgleish, and Hansen? Baxter, Bremner, Johnstone and Law?
According to Fifa, the greatest team to represent the tartan army reads: Gordon, Neilson, Alexander, Pressley, Weir, Ferguson, Fletcher, Caldwell, Miller, Hartley, and McFadden.
It doesn't matter that this team lost 2-0 to Ukraine. These were the last people to pull on the royal blue shirts and lion rampant crest before the latest Fifa rankings were released on Wednesday.
These placed Scotland 16th in the world, up from 62nd the same time last year, the team's highest-ever placing.
This leads to two questions: Firstly how long have the Fifa rankings been going, and secondly why should we respect the opinion of an international body who's head thinks the best way to improve women's football is tighter shorts?
The straight answer is 1993 and yes, yes we should.
The much-derided system of the before the World Cup, which saw the Czech Republic and the USA in the top five and Germany in 19th, has been heavily revised.
Points are allocated based on the result of the international match, the importance of the game (i.e. is it World Cup final or a mid-season friendly), the strength of the opposition, and the region (i.e. a good South American team ranks higher than a good Concacaf side), and added up over four years.
Fifa's ranking system now places Argentina, Italy, Brazil, France, and Germany top of the pile. Something not many of us would argue with.
So what are the results that have made Fletcher's side the very best since Goram, Gough, Levein and McCoist lost 5-0 to Portugal.
In the four years that have contributed to Fifa's current rankings Scotland have drawn with Italy and Germany in competitive matches, with Spain in a friendly and beaten Holland.
In the last nine months Scotland have won three games and lost just one. They have beaten the World Cup finalists, and sit top of a group that includes the world champions and another of the teams that made the quarter-finals in Germany.
Couple that with big wins against World Cup finals regulars Bulgaria and Slovenia, in the last 18 months and you start to think Scotland deserve their place above Uruguay, Denmark, Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
So does this make the current team better than the Bremner side that drew with Pele's Brazil and Beckenbauer's Germany and beat Moore's England at Wembley and Eusebio's Portugal? Maybe not.
But next chance you can head to Hamden Park, perhaps in 40 years you will be able to say you saw McFadden play Cannavaro and Scotland crowned World Champions for the first time since 1967.