Friday, June 1, 2007

Things would never be quite the same - Zephirine

The public might be all cricketed out, but it wasn't always this way

The West Indies cricket team are currently touring England, and the home side look set to beat them. So far, so predictable. Apart from diehard cricket fans the country is mostly indifferent, only perhaps registering that Michael Vaughan seems to be back, a guy with silly hair has done well for himself, and Freddie's ankle has gone again.

But it wasn’t always like that. There was actually an England/West Indies Test series which changed the country.

It was in 1976.

Looking at archive footage in a recent BBC4 documentary, you can see that Britain was an edgy, restless place that year; nobody had much money, different governments had come and gone, Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister. The country was at war - farcically, with Iceland, over fishing rights, but more bitterly and bloodily in the guerrilla struggles in Northern Ireland, which after seven years were becoming a way of life. Twelve IRA bombs exploded in London during January, and in March the extended family known as the Maguire Seven were wrongfully imprisoned for terrorism. In popular culture, the iconoclastic spirit of punk was on the rise.

Racism - conscious and unconscious - was still widespread in Britain, and black youth had constant trouble with a police force which could be bigoted and undisciplined. Many black British felt ‘invisible’ and not really part of the country; but at least there were laws declaring discrimination on grounds of race to be wrong. In South Africa, of course, things were quite different: June 1976 would see the Soweto riots in which protesting schoolchildren were shot and killed by security forces.

The England cricket captain, Tony Greig, had grown up in South Africa. Exceptionally tall, with untidy white-blond hair, he was an outgoing, aggressive player. In a TV interview before the first Test against the West Indies, Greig said “These guys, if they get on top they are magnificent cricketers. But if they're down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey and a few others, to make them grovel."

Watching the recording now, it seems clear what he means, the mindset of his childhood resonating unquestioned through his strong South African accent: “these guys”, the black men, have no strength of character, they won’t withstand pressure.

In itself that was insult enough, but for the West Indian players the word ‘grovel’ meant much more than just a punchy soundbite - it meant the auction block and the overseer’s whip. As soon as they heard Greig’s comment, they were blazing angry. Led by Clive Lloyd, whose schoolmasterly exterior masked a ferocious commitment to West Indian cricket as the outward symbol of proud independent nations, they set out to demolish England.

Summer 1976 in Britain would be the hottest and driest summer on record.

Many talented people have come from the county of Yorkshire, but it’s a part of the world that doesn’t do glamour. In the archive footage, this fact is embodied in the solid form of Brian Close, astonishingly an England opening batsman at 45 years old. Balding, managerial, shirtsleeves rolled up, he looks as if he should be at home washing the car before his Sunday dinner.

Bowling to him is Michael Holding from Jamaica, lithe, slim, 22 years old, so famously soft-footed in his long, suspense-inducing run-up that he acquired the nickname ‘Whispering Death’. Today many still consider Holding the fastest bowler in history. As he bowls, with his seemingly effortless action, to Close, the future challenges the past, and leaves it standing lost and helpless.

And here, coming out to bat, is Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards, from Antigua, on his first tour of England.

What can you say about King Viv that hasn’t already been said? Except that, watching the old grainy TV pictures, one wonders: has there been a sportsman before or since who used good humour as such a weapon? Here he is already at 24 years old, as he would be throughout his career: lethally affable. Supremely at ease, he makes being at ease threatening. He smiles, he chews gum, he strolls out to the crease like a contented lion checking out its territory of a sunny afternoon. His every move conveys that whatever the bowler sends down, it will be his pleasure to dispatch it to the boundary. He scores 232 in his first Test.

Did the West Indies demolish England and make Tony Greig grovel? Of course they did. They won 3-0, and if two matches hadn’t been drawn because of rain they would have won them all. The English are a funny lot, though, forever torn between a shared tradition of conventional hierarchy and a mongrel subversive individualism. We love a pirate, and the West Indies walloped us that year like mythical pirates with swagger and style and courage; few can have resented that victory, and many - especially the ever-rebellious young - enjoyed every bit of it.

And it really meant something. In those pictures of the final test at the Oval - the unwatered grass bleached out to greyish beige by the August heat - by this time the whole country knows what’s going on and it seems the entire black population of South London is at the match. As Holding splinters Tony Greig’s wicket, Viv Richards scores 291 and West Indies beat England by 231 runs, row upon row of young men in wide lapels and afro hair are cheering, singing, pouring onto the pitch at the final victory, fierce, energised, empowered. No one could tell them now that black people were only there to clip bus tickets and clean hospitals. There would be battles to fight and minds to be changed, rivers to cross, but in that summer of 1976 they believed they could make it: they would never be invisible again.

Some visual aides from youtube:

Holding gets a bit nasty:

Holding takes wickets:

Some highlights from King Viv’s career against England

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Branston Rabids Files x1 - file

The Hound of Baskerville Athletico– Part 1

Hercules "Eckle" Profiterole, the Belgian centre-half and part-time private detective, was disturbed.

Managers came and went like professional porn studs at Branston Rabids Football Club; it was a well-hung and well-oiled swing door that swung freely and without noise. But today the Rabids chairman, Sir Derek Tannic-Stanza, had called everyone together for a meet-the-new-manager meeting.

We should be training for the Melchester Roofers game, thought Eckle, not off chortling with chipolatas on sticks.

The 28 man squad had been allocated 3 seats in the corner of the President's Suite for the meeting - at the back, behind a Plexiglas screen. As he came in Eckle covered his sensitive Belgian nose as a heady stench of putrefaction hit him in the face like a Roberto Carlos free-kick. He nodded to Warsaw and joined the melee.

Eckle and Warsaw are the rocks of the Branston Rabids defence - Warsaw more overtly rocklike being 7 feet 8 inches of heavy Black Russian on loan from Gasket Moscowa. He’d been on loan for 7 years now and had been nicknamed Warsaw by a dyslexic ex-manager.

The Belgian and the Russian had adapted to life in Branston, England differently. Eckle with a flat in town; Warsaw a basement storage area under the abattoir, Eckle speaking clear Marquis of Queensbury rules English whereas Warsaw managed to communicate in the language of football, with a thick Afro-Russian accent.

"What’s that disgusting smell?" said Eckle just as Chris Rocket the blonde and flashy number 7 walked in.

"Morning all!" chirped Chris: "Ughh! What’s the stink man? Warsaw have you let rip again? Foul, man, foul."

At that moment the oily chairman Sir Derek clapped his hands.

"Good morning to you all and it is!" he coughed. "The start of a bright new day here at Branston Rabids Football Club! The sun is shining.." he swept his hand across an imaginary horizon "the birds a singing and all is for the very best in the best of all possible worlds, n’est pas?"

Players shuffled intimately inside their Plexiglas cordon.

"Ok, riiight, well if you can all just quickly sign these forms then we’ll move right on to meeting the new cheese on the block, ok?"

He handed out small bookies' biros and sheets of paper. All the players signed their names and handed them back without reading them. Except Eckle, who frowned.

"Why are we signing injury disclaimers Sir Derek?"

"What? Oh, don’t worry its nothing, bit of red tape really, just there please."

"But this means we won’t get paid if we get injured then?"

"Temporarily and regrettably yes, that’s right, have you got a pen?"

"Yes, but…oh never mind," Eckle shruged, he was very proud of his record of 207 consecutive games.

"Jolly good, pip pip," said Sir Tannic-Stanza as he collected the forms.

"Now, let’s get on with the introduction shall we? All the way from the European Champions, Baskerville Athletico, to sunny Branston, a warm hand for … our new manager!"

The chairman clapped and whooped twice loudly and enthusiastically until he realized he was whooping alone, the door opened and a waft of rotting flesh blew in a sweating and pale Jorges Mourir.

"Arrr, hello eberyone," he limped over to put his arm around Sir Derek and then leant on him heavily, breathing spittle hoarsely.

"Er…so, the beginning of the great adventure eh lads? I’m sure you’ll afford the new gaffer all the support you can in these difficult first few days…" the chairman shuffled uncomfortably under the weight of the sagging Portugazi.

"Jorges," ... ah ... record at Baskerville Athletico is without equal and we are very fortunate to …ah … Warsaw can you give me a hand here?"

Warsaw obligingly stepped behind Mourir and held him by his collar and belt while the new manager’s torso, limbs and head hung limply from his giant new skeleton.

With a look at the new manager and a quick step towards the door, clutching disclaimers in doughy white hands, Sir Derek added: "I know I can count on you all. Jorges will be taking training from now on…bye." And left.

The players blinked as the Portugazi sagged quietly, and then wanderd off. Warsaw put Mourir gently on a chair and went outside to join Eckle and Chris Rocket.

"Well at least he’s taking training instead of bloody Basho," said Chris, lighting a fag.

Eckle said nothing, there was a look behind his eyes as if lightening is trying to pass through wet clay. He was thinking. Something about the injury disclaimers and the stench of Mourir. . .

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Don't bother, I'm never going to understand cricket" - Ebren

The winter sports have passed us by. Football season over (everywhere except Spain), rugby season ended. Britons only ever pay attention to tennis for two weeks a year and cycling and athletics barely rate as a blip on the radar.

But there is one sport that is only just coming into its own, it's just that millions of people don't seem to rate it.

Cricket is "boring", you see. "How can you like a game that goes on for five days and is still a draw?" I am asked on a semi-regular basis.

It's a game only played in the commonwealth. By boring Brits. You stop to have lunch, and then a brief break for tea.

Perhaps the ultimate in-joke is that it is a sport that you cannot play in the rain invented by people in England. Other countries would appreciate the irony, if they understood irony.

But it is also a sport that dominates the imagination of huge swathes of the world's population. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. All have populations bigger than anywhere in Europe. At least twice as big in fact.

It's a sport that is loved in places as culturally and geographically diverse as Australia and Pakistan. New Zealand and the West Indies. Holland and Zimbabwe.

So what's this cricket malarkey all about then?

Put simply, you have eleven men on each side. You score points (called "runs") by hitting a ball thrown at you (bowled) with a wooden bat. The team with the most points (runs) wins.

You get a run if you manage to reach the throwing area before the other team can get the ball to either the hitting zone or the throwing area (the creases). If you have time to make this run (20.12m) more than once then you get two points, and so on. If you hit the ball clean out of the playing area you get six points, if the ball bounces or touches the ground before it leaves the playing area you get four points.

Each of the players gets a go at hitting the ball. They have to leave the hitting zone (are "out") if one of the opposition players catches a ball they have hit before it touches the ground, or if the ball hits the three wooden sticks (stumps and bails individually, "the wicket" collectively) behind them.

To stop people being able to play all day by just standing in front of the wooden sticks and so stopping the other team hitting them, there is a rule that if you block a ball that looked like it was going to hit the wooden sticks with your leg then you have to stop as well (leg before wicket - known as LBW).

So that is how you score and how you get out (run out, if the ball reaches the hitting zone before you do. Caught out. Bowled - when the opposition hit your stumps. And LBW).

There are a couple of other things worth mentioning. You always have two batters playing at once. One standing where the ball is thrown from, and one waiting to hit the ball. That way if an odd number of points (runs) is scored, you do not have to wait for the batter to get back to the hitting zone (crease) to start again.

The second batter runs at the same time as the first, and can be knocked out if the ball reaches the crease (either the throwing end or hitting zone) before they do, just like with the person who hit the ball.

After six throws you switch which crease you throw from (they are both set up the same), and you can only throw the ball with a straight arm.

Because your arm has to be straight, the people throwing often (mainly, in fact) bounce the ball into the ground to confuse the batter. While this slows it down, it introduces an degree of uncertainty in the batter as the ball is not entirely round and has a fatter, rougher strip round the middle (the seam).

There are three main types of thrower (bowler), seam bowlers (who use the seam of the ball to introduce uncertainty), swing bowlers (who make the ball move in the air - normally by polishing one side of it), and spin bowlers (who throw the ball slower, but spin it so it darts off the pitch to the left or right).

Each team either gets one or two goes at scoring as many points (runs) as they can before they run out of time or are all "out", then the other team tries to beat that score. If they score exactly the same or run out of time before everyone is out it's a draw. To speed things up, some games are played over a limited number of balls (120 or 300 normally), so it's just who scores the most in that time (unless everyone on one team is out, then your turn is over). In this version there are strict rules on where the ball is thrown to stop teams cheating by simply not throwing the ball where it can be hit (called a "wide").

And that's cricket.

This is the game you see on beaches in the Caribbean, that is Christian Vieri's first love (and probably Dwight Yorke's, not to mention Phil Neville, no - please don't) .

Simple. One man throws, one hits. Biggest score wins. But limitlessly varied.

Subtle and brutal. Civilised and savage. A game I, and hundreds of millions of others love.

Get on board and enjoy the ride.

And if that doesn't convince you - games last anywhere up to five days, you can drink in the stands, and there are convenient breaks for food.

Ernest and The Boxer by “The Boxer”

The Boxer reflects on what he has learned from Ernest Hemingway.

"We won the first with half of the money that we had to spend and he paid 12-1, jumping beautifully, taking command on the far side of the course and coming in four lengths ahead. We saved half of the money and put it away and bet the other half on the second horse who broke ahead, led all the way over the hurdles and on the flat just lasted to the finish line with the favourite gaining on him with every jump and the two whips flailing. We went for a glass of champagne at the bar under the stand and waited for the prices to go up. “My, racing is very hard on people,” my wife said. “Did you see that other horse come up on him.” The horses came by, ours wet with his nostrils working wide to breathe and the jockey patting him.
“Poor him,” my wife said. “We just bet.”"
(A Moveable Feast)

Ernest Hemingway began work as a reporter for the Kansas City Star in 1917 at the age of 18. He resigned from journalism seven years later to write fiction but throughout his career maintained the key journalistic skill of being able to entertain and inform.

Of the many things I have taken from Hemingway’s style is the importance of incorporating a unique viewpoint when writing about everyday experiences. An example of this is shown in the above piece where a couple are in a racecourse champagne bar immediately after winning a large sum of money. They speak of how hard the race was on their nerves before seeing the exhausted winning horse which puts their feelings into context.

The extract above appeared in 1936 and the ability to give a unique viewpoint to an everyday occurrence is as valuable today as it was over 70 years ago.
Hemingway’s sports-writing pieces were informative and to the point. He described Enghein Racecourse, situated outside of Paris, as the ‘small pretty and larcenous track that was the home of the outsider’. In twelve words he has relayed information that is helpful to the newcomer, informative to the expert and interesting to all and this is a fine example of a style that I have strived for over the past two years. It is very easy to presume a reader’s knowledge and this can make an article difficult to understand but the balance must be maintained to ensure fresh information is given for the more knowledgeable spectator’s benefit.

Equally the ability to quickly catch a reader’s attention while relaying the sense and pace of an event is a key aspect of sports-writing and is something I have consciously worked towards; and to this end Hemingway’s boxing writing has helped me immensely:

"The gong rang and Jack turned quick and went out. Walcott came towards him and they touched gloves and as soon as Walcott dropped his hands Jack jumped his left into his face twice…Walcott was after him, going forward all the time with his chin on his chest". (Men without Women)

On a practical level, and without exception, I start every piece of writing by using Hemingway’s mantra of beginning with ‘one true sentence,’ and when writing longer pieces I try as much as possible to ‘always stop when there is [still] something there.’

Emotion is a key aspect of competitive sports and consequently sports reporting and Hemingway was notable for his ability to accurately relay others’ emotions and the characteristics that become apparent in the exultance of victory or defeat’s despair:

"My wife had a horse one time at Auteuil named Chevre d’Or that was 120-1 and leading by 20 lengths when he fell at the last jump with enough savings on him to keep us for six months. We tried never to think of that. She had cried for the horse, I remembered, but not the money". (A Moveable Feast)

As a writer he was very aware of his own limitations and believed you should write ‘what [you] know about truly and care for the most,’. While this statement may seem idealistic in this competitive age I do believe the knowledge that comes from research – and an ongoing love of a sport – will shine through and become the article’s foundation.

Hemingway believed he could write about all sports but that he should not as he did not possess the required knowledge. For this reason he rarely wrote of cycle racing, which he enjoyed, as he felt the quality of his writing could not relay the sport’s essence:

"I have started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor and outdoor tracks and on the roads. But I will get the Velodrome d’Hiver with the smoky light of the afternoon and the whirring sound the tires made on the wood as the riders passed, the effort and the tactics as the riders climbed and plunged, each one a part of his machine". (A Moveable Feast)

A sportswriter must avoid excessive supposition and exercise sound judgement on what is appropriate to report and what is not; and Hemingway, an enthusiastic and reportedly successful gambler, mixed regularly with horse trainers and jockeys in the 1930s when doping was rife. He maintained his journalistic equilibrium by keeping a ‘tight rein’ on hypothesis and overt speculation and reported accurately while avoiding mentioning specific instances or individuals.

‘You had to watch a jumping race from the top of the stands at Auteuil… to see what each horse did and see what horse might have won and did not, and see why or maybe how he did not do what he could have done. You watched the prices and all the shifts of odds each time a horse you were following would start.’ (A Moveable Feast)

In common with current writers Hemingway very often wrote of his personal experiences and day to day situations. His ability to do this was startling given that he was often writing of emotive subjects – such as widespread horse doping. He had the ability to stay true to journalism’s code of ethics; seemly remaining distant from his subject while creating an intimate relationship with the reader that was often almost disturbing in its familiarity:

"I had wanted to go to the races very badly. But at this time I could not afford to go to the races, even though there was money to be made there if you worked at it. It was the days before saliva tests and other methods of detecting artificially encouraged horses and doping was very extensively practiced. But handicapping beasts that are receiving stimulants, and detecting the symptoms in the paddock and acting on your perceptions, which sometimes bordered on the extra sensory, then backing them with money you cannot afford to lose, is not the way for a young man supporting a wife and child to get ahead in the full time job of learning to write prose". (A Moveable Feast)

Undoubtedly the craft of sports writing has changed significantly since the 1930s but I believe that Hemingway’s sports writing skills have stood the test of time. His ability to entertain factions of sports fans with vastly different knowledge levels undoubtedly remains at the heart of good sports reporting. So too, does his ability to maintain journalism’s theoretical balance of what should be done against how it is practised. The above examples of reporting accurately whilst maintaining his subject’s freedom and confidentiality are just an example of how this talented reporter, renowned author and skilled sportswriter maintained journalism’s code of practice.

Hemingway ended Death in the Afternoon (his ‘exhaustive account’ of bullfighting) with an epilogue that I feel is appropriate here. It is his account of a piece of work, such as this, that has been completed but where the author felt he had so much more to say:

‘If I could have made this enough of a book,’ he began, ‘I would have had everything in it. The Prado, looking like some big American college building, with sprinklers watering the grass…’ (Death in the Afternoon)

Monday, May 28, 2007

Not a Boxing Classic - file

Henry Cooper vs. Cassius Clay, Wembley Stadium 18th June 1963
This programme is signed ‘Cassius Clay The Greatest of All Time’ and dated the day of the fight 6-18-63.

A classic sporting moment, especially if you are English, but is it still possible for sports writers to take on the old classics?

It’s a great year to write about, but how to gloss over John F. Kennedy’s promise of a Civil Rights Bill or his trip to Dallas or Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ and ‘I Have a Dream’ speech? How to touch lightly the unraveling events in Vietnam or the impact they would have on the young Clay?

A year when Spurs were the first English team to win a European trophy, Everton won the league and Man U raised the FA Cup, of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Chuck McKinley at Wimbledon.

‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ and ‘Oliver’ first opened in London and Please, Please Me first hit the decks. In America ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ came out as did ‘Surfin’ USA’ and the charts heaved with the likes of Ring of Fire, Da Doo Ron Ron, Wipe Out by the Safaris, Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa and It’s my Party.

The year that saw the arrival of Jose Mourinho and Graham Norton, Graham Poll and Gary Kasparov and the departure of Jean Cocteau, Georges Braques, Edith Piaf, Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis as well as, of course, JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald.

It’s a great fight to write about; Clay, at 21, was coming in undefeated on his way to the Heavyweight Championship title and Cooper was thought to be a tough enough 29 year old pro that wasn’t too tough to stand in his way. The British public was electrified by the occasion and live boxing on TV was already big business in the US.

Cassius Clay had arrived in England amid the usual brouhaha and taunted lyrically to anyone who would listen, predicting Coopers end in the fifth round.

Wembley was packed to the rafters on the night with as many as 50,000 fans baying ‘En-ery, En-ery’ but Clay came out with a fanfare and a cardboard crown, ‘I’m the Greatest’ on his back.

Clay was determined to dance, Cooper to get him against the ropes. There was a few hairy moments in the first few rounds and the youngster was bleeding from his nose but seemed to be biding his time and playing with our ‘Enry who was starting to gush from a cut above his left eye.
Cooper lands his famous left hook ‘Enery’s ‘Ammer’ (which ‘traveled 15 times faster than a Saturn V rocket with a force on landing of nearly 3 tons’) right at the end of Round 4 and Clay is dumped on the canvas for only the second time in his career.

The crowd is going mental and the Louisville Lip is clearly out on his feet as he gets helped back to his stool, where illegal smelling salts may have been administered by the fast thinking Angelo Dundee. A split in Clay’s glove is found and enhanced and who really knows how long the break lasted between those pivotal rounds.

Clay comes back out refreshed, destroys Cooper’s eye and gets the questionable honour of a Sonny Liston title fight as his reward. The rest, as they say, is history.

Great people to write about too; almost any history of Mohammed Ali makes good copy as the source is so extraordinarily great and Sir Henry Cooper also makes it into the history books not least as a lovable Cockney icon. What of the life and times of Angelo Dundee or perhaps even Jim Wicks, Cooper’s manager?

For every sports classic there is the accompanying opportunity for a sports journalism classic to rise to the occasion. This story is mostly covered by writers from a few basic angles; the blip in the rise and rise of Ali, the chance that England’s Cooper might have had and the controversy over the ripped glove and the debatably extended break between rounds.

I wanted to know if there was a still pointy angle to be found on this worn Rubik’s Cube of a story and so I read as much as I could about it, looked through the film and photographs of the fight and the times and tried to put myself into the Wembley crowd that night.

In the end I chose to focus on the cracks and not on the slabs, in between rounds from the perspective of Jim Wicks. There was a poetry workshop in the Guardian which seemed to show me a way to do this. By projecting Wicks’ words to Cooper in the corner, at this hugely pivotal moment between the 4th and 5th round, and recording it as a dramatic monologue.

I thought that perhaps by going the Blake route of finding ‘Eternity in an hour’ in a minute, I could capture a meeting point of strands of fate against a cultural and historical backdrop. Coopers peak, Ali’s fortune and determination to overcome Coopers left hook no matter the damage being done to his brain, Dundee’s defence of his boxer and Wicks’ hope for his.

‘Enery’s ‘Ammer

“‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, ‘ave a breeva
You’ve got ‘im san, ‘es ‘ad it
‘E’s flat aat like an ‘alibut ‘enry
‘E’s cuddlin the rope like a baby innee?

‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, let me at ‘em eyes o’ yours
‘Or blimey, this ‘uns a deep ‘un, ‘ee ‘yaa
Can you ‘ear ‘em boy? ‘Enery, Enery’
‘E ‘aint no greatest ‘e ‘aint
Fackin’ cardboard crown!

‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, you flawed him mate ‘n’ it’s only the fawth
‘N’ ‘e said ‘e’d ‘ave you daan in the fifth
‘N’ ‘e said you wuz a bum, a steppin’ stone
‘Swhy we put the money on…

‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, never mind abaat that naa, ‘ee ‘ya press this taal
‘Enery’s ‘ammer ‘ad ‘im ‘enery, ‘e woz saved by the bell
Lets rab you daan, ‘ave a bit a wind
‘E’s ‘arf aat on that stool ‘enry, look at ‘im

‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, wot woz it ‘e said?
“Landan bridge is fawlin’ daan and so will Coopa in Landan taan”
Fackin’ jungle bun…awight ‘enry I’ll keep it daan
Awight ‘enry, give it a rest mate, getchyer breff

‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, woss awl diss den? Woss up wiv ‘is mit?
Dem fly Yanks, woss up wiv it?
Why’s ‘e pulling dat string aat of it?
Wass ‘e doin? OI, GET AAT OF IT!

‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, they’re tryin’ t’ welch us
They’re brickin’ it mate that’s the rub

O’ ‘Ee ‘ya ‘enry, are you ready?
Don’t let ‘im dance, get ‘im up against the ropes
Keep yer left working boy and keep ‘im awf ‘is toes
Goo on ‘enry san, you keep it up you’ve got this wan

Goo on ‘enry san, you keep it up you’ve got this wan…”

So, not about the boxing classic but an attempt to say something fresh on a hacked out sports writing classic. I challenge any of you, who choose to challenge yourselves, to take a ‘Classic’ moment of sport and find something new to say about it, or a new way to say it, or a fresh angle.

In competition not with file, but with the greats of sports journalism and the great history of the events themselves. The bar isn’t very high at all (see above) and the process may well be hugely rewarding for the writer and certainly for the readers.

Ligue 1 wrap-up - offsideintahiti

The suspense is over... since mid-November actually, when Lyon had their sixth consecutive title in the bag and were able to concentrate properly on yet another early failure in Europe. They duly obliged, and let Roma go on to bigger things in the Champions League, while they focused on going through the motions at home and, in the end, did just enough to leave their nearest rivals, Marseille, 17 points behind. These two will represent France in the Champions League next year, but, as ever, it's impossible to guess how many of their current squads will have heeded the sirens' calls of more glamourous leagues by then. Lyon seem to have secured the ongoing services of their Brazilian spine, with Cris, Juninho and Fred staying on the banks of the Rhône, but are likely to lose Abidal, Malouda, Clerc, Govou, Wiltord, and possibly others. In Marseille, the main question marks hang over their three youngsters, Frank Ribéry, Samir Nasri, and Nigerian left-back with a missile launcher for a left foot, Taye Taiwo.

The first certainty for Lyon is that Gérard Houllier will not be steering them to their next early spring European disaster. The ex-Liverpool manager has resigned by his own mutual consent on the same day that Didier Deschamps was being resigned by the exclusive mutual consent of the Juventus board, presumably as a thank you gesture for taking the Old Lady straight back up to Serie A for his first season in charge, and in spite of a heavy points deduction. A straight swap is highly unlikely, but Deschamps is now perceived as a strong candidate for the Lyon job, while Houllier will probably disappear into the Australian bush. Unless Marseille snatch Deschamps, in a move that would see the man who captained them to their only European success (in 93) at the helm of the club for next season's Champions League campaign, with long-term caretaker manager, Albert Emon, returning to the club's youth set-up. Alain Perrin, of Premiership fame and who guided Sochaux to victory in the French cup and 7th place in the league, is also said to be interested in the Lyon job.

Unsurprisingly, most of the excitement this season was to be found further down the table. Much further down. Big guns Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain gave the phrase "squeaky bum" a whole new meaning by flirting dangerously with the drop zone for long periods. Both had to take drastic action and change managers mid-way through. Paul LeGuen managed to salvage his own career and the club's immediate future with an impressive late run which saw PSG finish in 15th after briefly touching rock-bottom for the first time ever. Monaco fired their Hungarian coach, Laszlo Boloni, early in the season after a disastrous start and put their trust in Laurent Banide, a young, unproven manager, who steadied the ship and eventually cruised comfortably into 9th place.

Sadly, another monument of French football was not so lucky. After fourty-four years in the top flight, eight titles and numerous cups, FC Nantes will be playing in Ligue 2 next season. A deep shock for a club whose name had come to define flowing, attacking football in France, with the expression "le jeu à la Nantaise" being a synonym for one-touch football. The enrollment of Fabien Barthez in the second half of the season smacked of desperate measures, and the episode summed up the club's woes, with the French goalkeeping legend letting in soft goals, walking out on his teammates in the middle of a game, and ultimately being chased out of the stadium, and away from the club, by angry fans. Those same angry fans who invaded their home pitch in protest four minutes from the end of the penultimate game of the season, demanding the board's resignation and, in the process, unwittingly producing the biggest shock of all. On the pitch, Nantes and Toulouse had been locked in a tedious 0-0 draw. The referee was unable to restart the game, the French FA stuck to the letter of the law and, despite the game being almost over at the time of the interruption, awarded Toulouse the 3 points, handing them an unbelievable lifeline and a huge psychological boost in their floundering quest for 3rd place and the preliminary round of the Champions League.

Last Saturday, at kick-off, the four teams vying for 3rd place were within two points of each other, with Lens (3rd) travelling to an already relegated Troyes, Rennes (5th) visiting a disappointing Lille, who had nothing to play for, and Toulouse (6th) and Bordeaux (4th) going head to head in the French capital of Rugby. The much coveted podium spot changed hands no less than five times in the course of the evening. Lens, who had spent more than two thirds of the season in the top 3, quickly fell behind at Troyes, and got their full-back Marco Ramos sent-off in the first half, which pretty much extinguished their challenge. Bordeaux went 1-0 up in Toulouse through their Brazilian Wendel, and hopped onto the podium.

Toulouse, however, refused to lie down. Their international strike force sprung into action, with Brazilian Paulo César and Cameroon international Achille Emana combining to provide Swedish center forward Johan Elmander for a spectacular hat-trick. With less than twenty minutes to go, le Stadium went crazy (yes, the Toulouse stadium is called le Stadium, that's its name), only to learn three minutes later that Rennes had opened the scoring in Lille. John Utaka had just propelled the club from Brittany into 3rd place for the first time in the whole season and into Champions League football for the first time ever. Now, if there is a right time to clinch that qualifying spot, a quarter of an hour from the end of the championship is certainly it. A nervous final fifteen minutes ensued, with the Rennes players, staff, and officials lining up along the touchline, getting ready to celebrate.

At the end of normal time, Rennes were well in control and even missed a good chance to kill the tie. At the end of the fourth minute of stoppage time, however, they conceded a free-kick at a distance that, at first glance, looked safe enough. From forty yards out, Obraniak floated it in and Fauvergue, who had come on late as a substitute, rose unchallenged to send a looping header over the stranded Rennes goalkeeper and, probably much to his surprise as a Lille player, score the most important goal in the history of Toulouse Football Club. The Rennes players buried their heads in the grass, the city of Toulouse partied all night. Toulouse finish the season in 3rd on 58 points, with Rennes, Lens, Bordeaux, and Sochaux all tied on 57. Who said French club football couldn't be exciting, sometimes?

In summary, Champions League spots go to Lyon, Marseille and Toulouse (whose only European claim to fame so far had been to knock-out Diego Maradona's Napoli on penalties in an early round of the UEFA cup in 1986). Nantes, Troyes and Sedan will play next season in Ligue 2. They will be replaced in the top flight by Metz, Caen and Racing Club de Strasbourg, who made it in spite of their manager being in charge for his very first season in the business. You may want to look out, next year, for the club from Alsace and this young, enthusiastic, attack-minded coach by the name of Jean-Pierre Papin.

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