Friday, March 28, 2008

Football again - the Velvet Bear

Following a brief hiatus, it is back to the NFL.

You might think that the Superbowl marks the end of the hard work for NFL teams, that they kick back, put their feet up and take a hard earned rest until the pre-season games begin in August. Not a bit of it. Most teams are already back in training, plus we are well and truly into Draft season, where mindless speculation rules supreme.

The big story over the last few weeks, though, has been the retirement of Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Brett Favre. For the last few seasons, Favre has played a ‘will he or won’t he?’ game with the media, his teammates and his family. It had almost become a tradition: season ends, Favre announces he might not be back next season, Favre goes on holiday, Favre hosts charity golf tournament, Favre calls press conference to announce he’ll play on for one more year.

This season was different. Favre had his best season in years. The Packers almost reached the Superbowl (ironically bowing out on a Favre interception) and on the way he broke just about every record in the book – career touchdowns, passing yards and (as he will forever be reminded) interceptions among them. So, needless to say, at the end of the season he came straight out and announced that he wasn’t coming back.

In fairness, the man hasn’t missed a game in 17 seasons. He played the night after his father died and with injuries which would’ve had lesser men in bed, whimpering. He even played through a significant substance abuse problem in the late-90s. The fact is, though, the game was getting harder for him. Whilst he could still make extraordinary plays – witness his underhand flick pass for a touchdown in the play-offs – and his arm remained as strong as ever, he was finding that he had to begin work for the next game as soon as one finished, thus reducing the time he could spend with his family. Even for him, this was too much.

The Packers now have an interesting problem. It is great to have a key player who makes 275 consecutive starts (the third most in history), but when he retires, how do you replace him? They have taken the bold gamble of sticking with Favre’s long time back-up, Aaron Rogers, but it means that they will start the season with, effectively, a rookie behind center and, unless they make some sort of move pretty soon, only the equally inexperienced Craig Nall as backup. It could be an interesting season at Lambeau Field.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side - Ebren

A few months ago I wrote something. A bleary-eyed reminiscence of an experience I thought was magical. At the time, I didn't mention the result of the game - I didn't think it mattered. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Because, like a second-rate sequel featuring George Clooney or Orlando Bloom, the same motley crew reassembled a few days ago. The same group – older this time around - were sucked from the Tube platform back into Narnia to try and re-live past glories. But without the aid of a novelist or Hollywood scriptwriter to plot a triumphant return.

You see, the first time out – like plucky underdogs – our aged legs defied the energy of a much younger and more technically proficient opposition. The wise heads prevailed and we won.

But youth always wins in sport, in the end. Experience is great and all, but even apparently immovable objects such as Bergkamp and Sheringham surrendered at the last as younger knees and sharper eyes finally overwhelmed them. Neither Matthews nor Maldini were sporting immortals.

And, like any money-grabbing media type, I hinted at a sequel at very end of my last stadium experience. And sequels are bigger, louder, flashier and generally more disappointing than their progenitors.

So it was last Saturday. Because, you see, it was last Saturday they let me play at Wembley.

But it didn't start that way. The hype kicked in. I was going to play at Wembley. In fact, when England self-destructed against Wales, I made myself happy again by repeating "I'm-gonna-play-at-Wembley" (mostly) inside my head. When they served a rancid insipid excuse of a performance against Scotland I repeated the trick. Like two pieces of uranium I was getting increasingly overheated and unstable as the clash approached. But it never went off.

Because, as excited as I was, as part of me believes I should be, it didn't work. Because, no matter how unique the experience was, I lost.

And when you lose all pitches are the same, all crowds the same, all stadia the same. Because when you've lost the stage doesn't matter. Set dressing and scenery is irrelevant. "Why can't you just enjoy it? Don't you understand we are ALL very jealous," my friends asked. Simple – because I didn't win.

It's a long way from the pitch to the Royal Box at the new Wembley. And far longer to collect a loser's medal (yes, they did have them, mine is in a drawer). The great arch doesn't support the roof for the losing team, it weighs on you. Alone. The showers are just showers, the dressing room stinks, and all of a sudden it matters that the water they supply to the players is Asda own-brand.

Because it wasn't just that we lost. It was that at no point did we look like winning. And more than that, even though we didn't look like winning, with ten minutes to play it was 0-0. Then two men ran in unmarked at the back post from a corner. Two men I had told the team were there, unmarked, and making runs. Then the only good corner of the day found one of them, who produced the best header of the year to score.

Then the midfield that didn't track all day, the full-back that was too far from his central defenders (me) all day, the whole lot of them didn't follow the shot in the 88th minute. The first one the keeper didn't hold. The one that rebounded straight to one of their un-tracked, unmarked midfielders. A yard from me. On his right toe. The first first-time shot of the game. Their second goal.

And I didn't care about the pitch. Or the stadium. Or the dressing rooms. Or the effing unending steps to the Royal Box. I. Just. Didn't. Care.

Because we lost. And now I'm never going to win at Wembley.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Grand Sham Sunday - Premcorrespondent

PremCorr hated Easter when it was four Sundays in a row, you had to eat fish and express gratitude for having been saved two millenia or so ago. Thankfully, the Conservative Party belied their name (again) and swiftly transformed Easter to four days of commerce and entertainment (and kept the choccy-chugging). So it is with a heavy heart (all the heavier after the cholesterol was cranked up a notch or two thanks to Cadbury's) that I must report a paucity of Easter entertainment provided by the Premier League millionaires - at least until the last creme egg of the weekend.

Grand Slam Sunday got off to a slow start with the sham that Liverpool deserve to be counted among the Big Four. Outplayed from beginning to end by a hungrier, technically more gifted, Manchester United, they were lucky not to lose Carragher early on (well done Rooney for standing up, but let's not do that in a World Cup Final son), but goal-machine Mascherano soon saw that justice was done by charging across the field to engage the referee in a discussion about his competence. His second yellow was issued and, after a hissy fit last seen in a few years ago when a my three-year-old was denied a third Easter egg of the day, he left the field carrying Liverpool's hopes with him. Liverpool were lucky to score nil, United unlucky not to score six.

The other half of Grand Sl/ham Sunday saw the end of Arsenal's pretentions to the title, as they surrendered a single goal lead to Chelsea in general and Drogba in particular, who appeared to have bet his shirt on scoring. This was a big win for the Roman's (or is that Avram's) boys, with some courage being displayed by the players in protecting their 1250 game unbeaten run at home. Of course, the real beneficiary of Drogba's goals was sitting at Old Trafford, chewing away, wondering whether it would be cheeky to offer Rafa a glass of Argentinian Red Wine.

The supporting cast turned out on Saturday in a series of largely forgettable games. Everton slipped in their pursuit of Liverpool with a home draw to 4-0 experts West Ham, courtesy of a goal chalked out for offside despite the ball deflecting off a Hammer to an onside Yakubu. Everton's fifth place looks secure, as nearest pursuers Portsmouth and Aston Villa lost to Tottenham and Sunderland predictably and unpredictably, respectively. Blackburn's Bentley and Santa Cruz double act suddenly woke up again to see off Wigan - Mark Hughes boys aren't quite up to challenging for a European slot and Steve Bruce's boys aren't quite bad enough to go down. Rounding out the mid-table, Man City's anonymous second half of the season continued with an anonymous 0-0 against doomed Bolton.

Down amongst the scrappers, Middlesborough pulled themselves away from the trap-door with a 1-0 win over record-chasing Derby County in front of a lot of empty seats. Newcastle brought an Easter smile to Little Kev's gloomy face with a 2-0 victory over probably doomed Fulham with goals from yesterday's men Viduka and Owen. Finally, grim Steve Coppell conjured another win for his Reading team over grim Scot Alex McLeish's Birmingham City.

PremCorr's off to spend the next hour brushing his teeth.

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