Friday, November 16, 2007

NFL week 10 - the Velvet Bear

One of the biggest problems writing about the NFL this week is the fact that there has been so little to write about. Seriously. In fact, I was almost reduced to reporting that the Patriots were unbeaten again this week - but only because they had a bye and so weren’t playing.

I could report that the Dolphins lost again, blowing a 10-2 lead to lose at home to the Bills. Bills kicker Rian Lindell kicked the winning field goal with 46 seconds remaining to give Buffalo victory. It’s getting to be desperate in Miami and their latest solution will be to give rookie quarterback John Beck a starting role against the Eagles this weekend. It is a big ask for the second round draft pick against an Eagles side who put 20 fourth quarter points on the board to beat the Redskins at the weekend and who are starting to show true signs of running into some form. The Dolphins still believe they can turn a 0-9 start into a moderately successful 7-9 season, but you’d be a fool to bet on it.

One bright spot for Miami is the return from suspension of Ricky Williams. The running back, the NFL’s top rusher in 2002, was suspended for 18 months after he failed four - yes, four - drug tests. Whether he can revitalise such a poor team after so long out is debatable, but any news is good news so far as this team is concerned.

The Dolphins are now the only side in the NFL without a win, after the St Louis Rams beat the New Orleans Saints 37-29. Key to the Rams win was the return of star running back Steven Jackson, who has been missing for most of the season with a back injury. He ran in one touchdown and threw for another as the Rams finally got their season started.

Perhaps the most interesting news of the week was the edict from the NFL that match officials should eject players from the game for so-called ‘helmet to helmet’ hits - i.e. where a player deliberately goes for another player’s head with his head. Ejection is equivalent to a sending off in football or rugby, except that the side who has a player ejected gets to replace him (the same happens in basketball). The sanction is very rarely used in the NFL, it happens about once a season, but as we have seen this year the league is getting tough on on-field discretions (heck, this week was so dull, no-one even got fined for that) and it will be interesting to see how often, if at all, this sanction is used.

In the rest of the news this week:

- A very rough week for the Vikings. They suffered their first shutout in about 15 seasons as Green Bay beat them 34-0. Along the way they lost Adrian Peterson with a knee injury that will keep him out for at least one game and picked up some seriously bad publicity for docking the salary of receiver Troy Williamson when he went to his grandmother’s funeral - a decision they later had to reverse.

- Also shut out were the 49ers, handing an easy 24-0 win to the Seahawks in Monday night’s game. The loss has cost quarterback Alex Smith his job, with veteran Trent Dilfer taking over for this weekend.

- The Manning boys also had a bad week. Peyton threw an unprecedented six interceptions as the Colts lost 21-23 to the Chargers, Colts kicker Adam Viniateri missing a field goal with the last kick of the game which would’ve won it. Eli was simply dreadful for the Giants against the Cowboys, even allowing himself to be sacked by the returning Tank Johnson as Dallas won 31-20, courtesy of two more touchdowns from Terrell Owens. Interestingly, that game was run by only 6 officials after the 7th pulled a hamstring early in the game - you have enough players to put three entirely different sides on the pitch but no-one thinks to bring a spare official.

- Those who were paying attention last week will recall that I mentioned that the Panthers had no fit and match-ready quarterbacks. Vinny Testaverde gamely limped through their home game against the Falcons, which no 44 year old should have to do. There was a time when he could probably have beaten this year’s Falcons on one leg and he almost did it now, Alge Crumpler’s touchdown with twenty seconds left giving Atlanta a 20-13 win.

- Shock of the week came at the Raiders, where Rex Grossman - yes, him - came off the bench to replace the injured Brian Griese and threw the winning touchdown to give the Bears a much-needed victory by 17-6. He’ll keep his place on Sunday, too.

- A big day for Big Ben as Mr Roethlisberger had his best game of the season, throwing two touchdowns, running one in for himself from 30 yards and picking up the NFL Player of the Week award for only the second time in his career. Victory over the Browns came at a cost for the Steelers, though, as safety Ryan Clark was so badly injured he had to have his spleen removed. For the Browns, Derek Anderson became their first quarterback for 20 years to throw 20 touchdowns in a season, but it wasn’t enough to stop them losing 31-28

- On the disciplinary front, Pacman Jones has had a plea bargain accepted by a judge, so won’t stand trial over the lap dance club incident. In a novel move - at least for a footballer - Fred Weary of the Houston Texans is actually suing the police, after they shot him with a Taser gun. All of which means that both are likely to escape any or any further sanction from the league.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

St Pancras, French footballers' terminus – by Marcel des Maures et des Aurores

To celebrate the grand opening of the new Paris Nord-St Pancras train line, French TV channel Canal + launched, during my recent visit to Paris, a "Semaine Anglaise": London on a plate for a week. From the breakfast show to the late night news, most of the channel's programs, including special guests and features, dealt with England. It started brightly, with "Allons donc à London" in which Antoine de Caunes, the trendy frenchy vamped down as Pete Doherty, delights in finding lunatics and eccentrics such as that militant who camps out in front of the Parliament to voice his opposition to British involvement in Iraq. Londres wouldn't be London without music, and Sir Paul Mc Cartney's concert at the Olympia (last October) will be broadcast on Friday at 10.30 pm.

"Canal + is Rich", undoubtedly so. Through TV rights, the channel provides around 50% of French football clubs' income, transfers excluded. In other words, gates receipts only make up a measly 15% of that income. Like Canal +, that set its clocks on London time, French football would do well to take a few leaves out of the Premier League's accounting books and also try to understand how its own national team's success brought about its national league's demise.

By regularly losing its star players, the French Ligue 1 has lost its attractiveness. So called "big games" between Lyon, Marseille, or Paris SG (the last OL-OM being the exception that proves the rule) don't have the intensity of the Italian derbys, of the Real-Barca classico, or of the duels at the top of the English League. Neither Sky Sports nor the Italian Rai broadcast any of the Ligue 1 matches. Meanwhile Arsenal-Manchester United got a billion people glued to their TV sets, eager to watch Rooney, C.Ronaldo, Giggs, Gallas and Fabregas slug it out. The programme notes read like credits for a movie in which the players have taken on the actors' role in people's hearts.

The mystical dimension of Italian football was highlighted by Dino Bazzatti after the Superga disaster. In 1949, the novelist declared that the crash of a plane loaded with famous writers would not have moved his compatriots quite so deeply. Obviously, the dangers of such an excess of enthusiasm are clear, as recent events in Italy have confirmed. However, in contrast with latin excesses, British moderation has proved that the fortunes of an endangered championship could be turned around. After doing a meticulous cleaning job to improve safety in their stadia, the English invested close to 1.5 billion Euros (if it wasn't for the fact that they insist on calling them Pounds) to turn their sporting arenas into profit centers where fans splash their cash.

Conversely, the French missed out on the unique opportunity presented by World Cup 98 to renovate their infrastructure sufficiently. Today, le Stade de France is the only stadium deemed fit to host a Champions' League final. In order to compete with great European sporting nations, it is absolutely essential for France to modernise its football venues. Nearly all stadia in the country belong to local authorities, which hinders their development. It would be necessary to combine public financing with brand sponsorship deals like Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, but some are still reluctant. "I can't imagine Sochaux's Stade Bonal being called Stade "Mobil". For his part in the résistance, Auguste Bonal was executed by a firing squad shortly before the end of the war. I will not sell my soul," declared the Chairman of Sochaux Football Club.

Certainly, Lyon is the exception. But in the long run, if Jean-Michel Aulas, their president and Ligue 1's main agent provocateur, keeps on selling his best players, he runs the risk of seeing his team play in a bigger stadium, but to a smaller crowd. The players' exodus and the talent drain must be checked if not stopped entirely. In the last two years, Lyon lost Essien, Diarra, Malouda, and Abidal; Marseille lost Drogba and Ribery, amongst others. The total amount of last summer's transfer fees approaches the 200 million Euro mark. Now the clubs are wondering how long they will be able to hold on to Benzema, Ben Arfa or Nasri, what with Real Madrid, Barça and Inter Milan already waving their chequebooks. A league can only be popular if the people who actually go to the games can watch their internationals wearing the local colours.

The French league can make up lost ground by multiplying growth leverages and, like the Premier League did, by acknowledging simple economic truths and reducing charges in order to offer players more attractive salaries.

It would be naïve to deny that economics dictate the rules of professional sports. Norman Mailer wrote of his passion for "ransacking innocence", to make the point that naïveté no longer has a place in the modern world of television and high-capital media. Having built its reputation on cinema and football, Canal + had a great opportunity to use its "English Week" to boost motivation for a transformation that the channel would be first to benefit from: a special show analysing the achievements and success of the "Barclays League", for example. If France fails to learn from the English, the Eurostar will transport ever increasing loads of young French players towards their final destination: St Pancras, in the very heart of London.

Let me paint you a picture - premcorrespondent

Sorry for the slow reporting - I felt that I couldn't truly tell the tale of the weekend's action without placing it in the full context of tonight's Johnstone's Paint Trophy results.

And truly this added colour and has been worth waiting for.

White-washing seems all the rage, not only were Yeovil beaten 1-0 by Swansea, but West Ham rinsed Derby 5-0. Derby have been taken to the cleaners so often this season it's hard to work out what colour their strip was originally - but it's faded to white now.

Eight of the Premier League's sides took up the Daz Challenge - all keeping spotlessly clean sheets. West Ham, Liverpool, Bolton, Boro, Man U, Pompey, City, and Spurs all made sure their bed linen was in a fit state to receive a special friend.

Bolton and Middlesbrough both seemed too intent on impressing the ladies with their domesticity to actually bother with scoring in the first place. And unless you have some potency up front and the wherewithal to use it, all the bleached bedclothes in the world will get you about as far as an agoraphobic tortoise in a pool of treacle.

The second double-oh of the weekend was one where the only licence to thrill belonged to young City keeper Joe Hart. An impressive display from the England under-21 stopper meant Harry Redknapp's language turned as blue as his player's kits as Pompey were held to a draw on the south coast.

Juande Ramos' time in charge of Spurs has seen the Lillywhites record three clean sheets in his four matches, which is verging on obsessive-compulsive. This weekend saw the North Londoners continue in their quest to throw off their reputation as the league's worst dog-walkers as they resolutely held on to their lead against Wigan to climb out of the top flight's bottom reaches.

The reds halves of Manchester and Liverpool were the remaining domestic goddesses, both winning 2-0 at home to Blackburn and Fulham respectively.

Liverpool's and Fulham's neighbours locked horns at Stamford Bridge - but neither could protect their unblemished bed-wear or score more than once in 90 minutes. Everton and Chelsea's Uefa Cup decider ended 1-1. How things have changed at Stamford Bridge since Jose left - now there was a man who knew his grooming, just 61 conceded in his three full seasons in charge finishing each year with the best defence.

Arsenal strolled past Reading with a 3-1 win, seeing them finish the weekend's fixtures at the top of the pile and responsible for the most dirty laundry - they have scored in every league game this season.

In the North-East and the Midlands local rivals renewed their acquaintances after a trial separation enforced by relegation. Sunderland drew 1-1 with Newcastle, while Birmingham lost 2-1 at home to Aston Villa. These games were ruined by one hack's inability to think of fresh paint analogies mangle more bedlinen metaphors.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

We Will remember them - Ebren

On the 25th of March 1918, just months from the end of World War One, a professional footballer was shot in the second assault on the Somme. His fellow soldiers risked death to get to him, his body was never found.

The story is far from unique, but the solider was. His name was Walter Tull.

Tull had it harder than most, an orphan from the age of nine, his stepmother could not manage all six of her husband's children. Walter and his older brother Edward were sent to an orphanage in Bethnal Green, London.

The Methodist teachings of the orphanage were strict, disciplined and arguably stood Walter in good stead for his later life in football and the army.

He started playing football early and soon excelled. Spotted playing for the orphanage team he was invited to join amateur site Clapton in 1908. He helped them win the FA Amateur Cup, the London Senior Cup and the London County Amateur Cup.

He was signed for Spurs in 1909, he toured Argentina and Uruguay with the team as an amateur, signing professional forms on his return to England.

But despite all the early promise, rave reviews against Manchester United and a goal against Bradford, seven games into his first season he was dropped. There was a problem - Walter Tull was black.

Playing at Bristol City he was racially abused with "language lower than Billingsgate [a notoriously coarse London fish market]" by "hooligans" in the crowd - the actions of fans and the press reports describing them eerily reminiscent of what was to follow on terraces across the land over 50 years later.

Tull was sold to Northampton Town and excelled, playing more than 100 games, scoring four goals in one match (he wasn't a striker) and looking set to sign for Rangers in 1914. Then the war came.

He signed up to fight for the British army as a volunteer immediately, effectively ending his football career (although he did make a guest appearance for Fulham in 1915).

Tull was the second professional black footballer in England and the first outfield player, goalscorer and to play in the top flight.

What he did in uniform was more impressive.

Quickly promoted to sergeant Tull survived the Somme in 1916, but was struck down by fever in December 1916. After recovery he did not return to the trenches immediately, instead he went to officer training school in Gailes, Scotland.

Walter Tull became the first ever black British army officer and the first man of colour to lead white troops in battle, at a time when it was illegal for him to take on either role.

He was mentioned in despatches for coolness under fire and recommended for the Military Cross after bringing his men back unharmed from a sortie.

An orphan whose grandfather was a slave and father was a joiner had broken down barriers to become a professional footballer and an officer. On his death, his commanding officer breached protocol one last time, writing this while informing his family of his death: "He was popular throughout the battalion. He was brave and conscientious. The battalion and company had lost a faithful officer, and personally I have lost a friend." British army officers didn't do emotion back then.

But after his death he was forgotten by the nation.

It was not until the mid-1990s that Walter's story re-emerged, when Phil Vasili saw his name mentioned in passing while researching a book on Britain's earliest black footballers in 1992. He published an article on Tull in 1996 that was read by Trevor McDonald. The newsreader gave a radio talk based on this research - one heard by Northampton Town fan Sean O'Donovan.

O'Donovan started campaigning, and soon everyone from Spurs (who dropped him) to Bristol City (whose fans abused him) were honouring Tull's role in the early days of the game.

Today, almost 90 years after his death, visitors to Northampton Town's Sixfields Stadium can see an odd memorial - one in a mosaic of black, white, and grey stone.

It reads: "Through his actions, WDJ Tull ridiculed the barriers of ignorance that tried to deny people of colour equality with their contemporaries.

"His life stands testament to a determination to confront those people and those obstacles that sought to diminish him and the world in which he lived.

"It reveals a man, though rendered breathless in his prime, whose strong heart still beats loudly."

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