Thursday, July 12, 2007

A game in amber - Ebren

Tick...

The floodlights infuse everything with a harsh, yellow light making the green of the grass look plastic and the red of the opposition shine. Beyond the pitch is darkness.

Behind me a team-mate screams encouragement.

There is a defender three meters away in front of me to my right, at two o'clock. There is another defender to my left - a meter further away, at nine-thirty.

They are irrelevant. The ball hangs in the air closer than both of them.

It is coming towards me, dropping in slow motion into that pocket of space in front and slightly to the right of my knee. The hitting zone.

I take in the wider scene.

The goal is ahead or me 15 or so metres away. The goalkeeper is too far to his left. Nine players are looking at me, or at the ball.

The top corner is there. Right There. There is nothing between my right boot and it. The scores are tied.

I can see it. See it all. See it in my head. Burned into my head. Still there, days, weeks, months, later.

I start to lift my right foot - body shape, it's all about body shape.

...Tock

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The best centre back England never had, or wanted - kokomo

He has led one of the best defences in the world for the last three years. In that time, he has won a Champions League, an FA Cup and been to another Champions League final. He has also been instrumental in his team having its best domestic season, and tightest defence, for 16 years. Before that, he was played largely away from his best position, but even then he was an integral part of a team which won the UEFA Cup, FA Cup and two League Cups.

When his current club manager took charge of Liverpool, he soon declared him the equal of his previous prized charge, Roberto Ayala, then considered one of the finest defenders in the world. He has twice been voted into the Champions League team of the year, and two years ago was voted in the top 30 world players of the year, a higher position than any other British defender. Franco Baresi, the greatest defender of modern times, has called him the best defender in Europe, and he has received lavish praise as he led his team to clean sheet after clean sheet across Europe.

He has a solid number of international caps, and was until recently the record holder for Under-21 caps for his country.

This tells the tale of a bright young talent, who fulfilled his potential with a trophy-laden career, gaining all of the plaudits along the way.

And yet, and yet... No-one has really taken any notice of Jamie Carragher as an international footballer. It was not until this week, as he announces his probable departure from the international scene, that anyone has written about him as an England defender.

Three years ago, as Rio Ferdinand was suspended for failing to attend a routine drugs test, England went into Euro 2004 with a first choice central defensive partnership of Sol Campbell and John Terry. A very strong duo. Campbell suffered an injury shortly before the game, and for a week or so all of the speculation was about who would replace him, with it generally seen to be a straight fight between Ledley King and Carragher. On that occasion, King won out, and it was probably the right decision. Carragher had only just started playing centre back again regularly for Liverpool, and his one achilles heel was leading the French attack that night; Thierry Henry.

In the three years since, while those on the continent have been falling over themselves to praise him, not a lot has changed in the public perception of Jamie Carragher in this country. Some say that it was his misfortune to be part of the same generation as the admittedly strong Terry and Rio Ferdinand. That may be true, but since Euro 2004 the following players have also been picked ahead of Jamie Carragher at one time or another: Jonathan Woodgate, Ledley King, a half-fit ageing Sol Campbell, Wes Brown, Phil Neville, and Matthew Upson, all to no great public disbelief. I defy anybody to tell me why they deserved to be picked ahead of Jamie in that time.

If he had been born Italian, he would have contested a World Cup final last summer (I hesitate to say won the World Cup, as he lacks the goalscoring ability of the matrix). If he were German, their defence would have been built around him. The Brazilians would love a player like him. Even the French, very strong in this area, would surely have been glad to see the back of the hapless Mikel Silvestre if Carragher were born in Bordeaux instead of Bootle. A team of Carragher’s would probably not be very good, but there are not many teams who wouldn’t benefit from one Carragher.

Here though, we have damned him with faint praise; ‘A local lad lending a (shrill) scouse voice to Liverpool.’ ‘Prepared to die for the cause.’ ‘Makes the most of his ability.’ He does all these things, but it does not recognise the absolute top drawer quality that he brings to any table. He is obsessed with football, and better than anyone else this allowed him to adapt to Rafa Benitez’s much maligned zonal marking system (much maligned, but also statistically the best defence from set pieces for the last two seasons, incidentally). It was this knowledge of the game that allowed him to remain a key player despite Sami Hyypia, Stephane Henchoz, Markus Babbel, John Arne Riise and Steve Finnan being brought into the club to play the position that Carragher had made his own the season before.

It is also this footballing intelligence that means he reads the game better than any other defender currently playing in the Premiership. Regular interceptions, last ditch tackles to cover other’s mistakes, and never being caught out for his famed lack of pace (save one or two Henry specials, but then who isn’t susceptible to them), suggest a man whose positional sense is second to none. It also enabled him to run a defence, often including Djimi Traore, which was tighter than any other assembled in the country two seasons ago.

The image of Carragher in the popular psyche is of a man who looks a little out of his depth, uncomfortable on the ball, red faced and bent double. That is my picture too. But what I know is that I would not swap him for any other defender in the world at Liverpool, even if some others are more athletic, are more of a danger from set pieces, and look a bit silkier on the ball.

Jamie; don’t cry for you country. The truth is, it never loved you. I do appreciate you though. Not for your workmanlike qualities, though you have them, or for your commitment, though even for an Evertonian that cannot be questioned. I appreciate you for your sheer quality. For your skill, for your brain, and for your ability. It’s just a shame that most of your country didn’t notice your brilliance.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The Branston Rabids Files x6 - file

The Adventure of the Speckled Bandit

“Did you think I would leave you crying
When there’s room on my horse for two
Climb up here Eckle don’t be crying
I can go just as fast with two
When we grow up we’ll both be soldiers
And our horses will not be toys
And I wonder …”

“Warsaw” rasped Eckle with all the force he could muster “Shut up! It’s your fault I slept in a horse trough all night anyway. Egit.”

Branston Rabids Football Club is without a manager again as …Basho Johnson, the first team coach, is taking training again and he can only speak in haiku or in koan.

Eckle, nee Hercules Profiterole, the Belgian centre-half and part-time private eye, is still not entirely convinced of the integrity of the club chairman and owner Sir Derek Tannic-Stanza.

The next manager for the Rabids after the Mourir debacle had been recalled by the manufacturers due to production flaws.

Then arrived Andre Parboiled, the bathroom window boy, from Branstons fiercest rivals; Middlinghamsborough Frost.

He came amidst a barrage of spitting and wailing from the Frost fans and broad backs from the players. While the boy had done well to bring the tepid Frost into the Premier Division he had also sowed seeds of disharmony in the dressing room and in the dressing rooms.

Though not on the empty training grounds; the players felt safest at home in the day times, within petting distance of their dearest doe-eyed squeezes rather than running about with a deputizing coach.

Sir Derek Tannic-Stanza didn’t listen to waffle and was regularly seen chortling ribaldly with Parboiled whenever the delumptious Mrs Rocket bobbled by.

Chris “Golden Plums” Rocket, Branston’s star player, had only recently got hitched.

The arrival of Miss Geletine Fluff to the WAG scene in Branston suburbia had caused quite a stir and results had suffered. Rocket was roundly appreciated when he decided to make honest men of his teammates by marrying Miss Fluff and thereby taking the tempting Gelly of the table, so to speak.

But to Sir Derek and to Andre all life was a smorgasbord.

Not long after that the newly wed Rocket had come into training with red rimmed puffy eyes, looking generally even more pre-Raphaelite than normal. After he’d collapsed in wailing sobs a few times during triangle drills Eckle took him on one side.

The others were mightily disappointed but Eckle thought it best to find out what the problem was before the difficult away game at Gorky Blu Meanies.

“Boo .. hoo.. blab, there’s someone else Eckle, I just know it.”

“Well we all have to pass sometimes Chris but it shouldn’t get you down like this man.”

“No…sob…Gelly, she’s seeing someone else, wail.”

“Oh,” said Eckle: “Oh dear, er… have you seen a doctor?”

Soaring moans from striker.

“Well, do you know who it is?”

“Bawl, the only thing she would tell me is that he’s got a spotted birth mark on his todger.”

“Er…why did she tell you that Chris? Never mind, I don’t know of anyone with a birth mark there but I haven’t being looking very closely since that awful incident last May…” Eckle tailed off, lost in his own pain for a moment.

“When I get my hands on him I’ll cauterize that bloody birth mark me self I will” said Rocket in a growing rage that looked almost masculine, from a distance.

“Now then, young man,” said Eckle: “You just sit tight for a bit and I’ll see if I can’t get to the bottom of it. Save you doing anything rash, ok?”

“Alright Eckle, thanks buddy, and talking of rashes...”

A tense couple of days go by as our Hercules uses the shower time to his best advantage. It was soul destroying work however, distancing long time friends willy-nilly and nursing swollen purple eyes without even a glimpse of the offending article.

Then he happened by a guffawing Andre Parboiled miming the style of the doggy to Sir Derek.

“… like a steam train. She said 'Thrust me, baby!'"

How they roared.

“Thrust me baby! That’s a good one!” cried the chairman through tears of laughter.

Eckle sidled past quietly, deep in thought, plotting.

He had to find a way to get rid of Parboiled before anyone else found out; otherwise they’d all want a bit of Gelly on their spoons.

In the normal way of things at Branston all they had to do was lose 3 or 4 games on the trot and the manager would be strapped to the ejector seat asap. This time, thought Eckle, it had to be done on the double; he would have to move quickly.

By half-time at Salem’s Bridge the Rabids were 17 goals down and the Belgian centre-half had achieved an individual world record of 11 own goals in a single game.

“What the hell do you think you’re playing at?” spat Sir Tannic-Stanza as Eckle went down the tunnel: “Are you mad boy?”

“Its Parboiled’s plan,” insisted the centre-half: “He says if we lull them into a false sense of security we’ll be able to pounce like a Hippo in the second half.”

“Lull them like a Hippo!” screamed Sir Derek “What the FACK are you talking about?!?!”

He stormed off in search of the manager while Eckle sucked on his lemon sweetly.

At the end of the game the Rabids had kept it down to 18-1 and Andre Parboiled had already been fired, with a brick by all accounts.

Eckle took a well deserved shower and scrubbed off the stink of his afternoons play and just as he was whistling Ra-Ra-Rasputin and picking up the soap; it hit him square between the eyes.

The spotted todger.

Eckle looked up at the smiling face of the sneaky, slight Scottish winger in shock.

Never mind, he sighed, mentalist managers were ten-a-penny but tricky dribblers were much harder to find.

I love Lycra by Mimitig - mimitig

Well folks, it’s that time of year again. For three weeks of the high summer we have, depending on your point of view, either days and days of fit young men with muscular thighs and calves, clad in skin-tight lycra defying sanity and reason, racing for over 2,000 miles round France and neighbouring countries, or a bunch of crazed drug-loonies racing for …..

Call me na├»ve, call me a fool, but I go for the former. Unlike last year, the start of this year’s Tour de France could not have gone better. Of the 190 riders due to start, only one did not – and the drug-related reason for Petacchi’s disqualification could hardly be more shaky if it were a sand-castle falling down as the tide comes in. As an asthma sufferer, he is registered with the authorities for the use of salbutamol, and it would appear that only the weather conditions caused him to present an illegal sample of about a nano-gramme. This is a far cry from the dramas of 2006, which saw leading contenders falling by the way-side before the Grand Depart in the wake of Operacion Puerto (still unresolved).

Waved off in the Mall yesterday by London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, in beautiful sunshine and with crowds of about one million lining the route of the 8K Prologue course, the world of professional cycle racing breathed a sigh of relief. London had scarcely looked more stunning – for once, as commentators Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett noted – there was no scaffolding masking the architectural treasures of the capital, and all was set for the most exciting of time-trials that I have seen for many a year. Early on Andreas Kloden set a stunning time, just over the 9 minutes and for ages this looked unbeatable. Our own Brad Wiggins rode his heart out and only missed out on a podium by thousandths of a second. At the very end, World Champ Fabian Cancellara made them all look slow, dipping below the 9 minutes and showing the world just what Swiss sportsmen are made of (or maybe just making sure Roger knew what he had to do in SW19 the following day!).

As I watched the scenes in London – so many happy people and such calm organisation, it seemed unreal that only a week before, this country had been on the highest of security alerts due to thwarted terrorist threats. It was a triumph for Ken, the public and the men in lycra. When Christian Prudhomme was interviewed by Gary Imlach and Chris Boardman at the end of the day, he could not stop smiling. His first year as Directeur – what a start.

They rolled out of Town this morning – more stunning TV shots of London (and let’s not forget that it is the French who control the broadcasting) – as our lycra-clad heroes pedalled slowly to the race start in Greenwich. Ken got to wave them off again at Tower Bridge and after a couple of Ks – covered faster by these boys than most commuters manage in cars – the race real began. It didn’t take long for Saunier-Duval’s (and Scotland’s own) David Millar to take on the pack. He led a sole breakaway for what seemed like most of the race. He was joined by a couple of Frenchmen and two others and they led the peloton through the Kent countryside. The peloton stopped off for a communal slash at about the only point on the route when the roads were not lined by an astonishing hundreds of thousands of spectators, while Paul Sherwen got all his words muddled up describing the orchards and hopfields of Kent as the “bread-basket of London”. Phil, who has commentated on the Tour for more years than I care to remember was convinced, as was I, that we’ve not seen crowds like this in the French countryside in recent years.

As the kilometres were covered, the breakaway was pulled back – the sprinters’ teams got themselves organised. Quickstep for Tom Boonen, Credit Agricole for Thor Hushovd and predictably, Predictor Lotto for the Pimpernel aka Robbie McEwen. T-Mobile should have been in it for Mark Cavendish, but a nasty crash (hitting a spectator) had put paid to the young Manxman’s dream, and one didn’t give much for the chances of the Australian either. Robbie had punctured at the start of the race, got back, only to crash – or be crashed into – a scant 18K from the finish. With only 5K to go, although his team were working feverishly, Robbie was pretty much stone last.

But this man is a wonder to behold (he had already 11 Stage wins in his Tour career), and less than 200m out, suddenly, there he was. Blazing up the right-hand side – just as we were thinking little Robbie Hunter would steal the glory – and just swept everyone away. It was one of McEwen’s best wins, and with skin torn from his leg and a damaged wrist, one could only laugh at the irony as he described himself as a “light-weight”.

David Millar got his due reward for a courageous breakaway, and canny riding for the intermediate sprints and climbs, so starts tomorrow in the Polka Dot Jersey of King of the Mountains, and in third place in the General Classification. Brad Wiggins’s brave ride in the Prologue leaves him fifth – the first time I can remember two Brits in the top 10. Robbie is resplendent once again in green and who would bet against him winning tomorrow in Ghent? It is, after all, his adopted home. Fabian stays in yellow – he now has two of those cute cuddly lions this year.

I love Le Tour de France, I love men in lycra, I love the sight of French gendarmes on duty in the streets of South London. As Phil said: “it doesn’t get much more bizarre than that.” For the Tour and for its English hosts, it doesn’t get much better than the last two days.

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