Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Awards 2008 (as seen by Mouth of the Mersey)

Yes it's a cliche, but it's fun too. Comment is welcomed below, but pseuds' own nominations are welcomed posted to the address above. As personal as possible please! 

Team of the Year

Such is the volume of football available to the subscription holding viewer that it is easy to become sated with the game, but Euro 2008 lit up a dank English summer with free-flowing, imaginative and skillful play. In Spain, the tournament found worthy winners, the best national team since France's 2000 squad and amongst the top half dozen I've seen. England were not missed - naturally.

Man of the Year

Before the Beijing Bolt, the leading man in sports was Rafael Nadal. His extraordinary success on the clay continued at Roland Garros where he is unbeaten since 2004. But he stamped his mark on the season with his epic victory at Wimbledon over grass courts' acknowledged master, Roger Federer. It was a reward for his bold expansion of his game and a refusal to rest on his laurels. This bull of a man retains his boyish charm and is unfailing polite in the media, which allows us to forgive his on-court ticks.  

Woman of the Year

Sport celebrates its winners, but should acknowledge its losers too. Lolo Jones went to Beijing as favourite to win the 100 metres hurdles and was about to deliver the gold when she hit the penultimate obstacle and, at 26, her dream disappeared forever. Once the initial shock wore off, her reaction showed a depth of understanding of the nature of sport that reveals a more rounded personality than most sports stars, as this interview shows. Lolo comes from a less than privileged background, but she knows that her obligations run beyond winning races and making money. Her er.. natural advantages will guarantee a post-athletics career in the media, should she want one, but few would begrudge her.

Event of the Year

After seven races in just a few days, then adrenelin was ebbing, but the expectation was mounting. Merely Gold in the Olympic 200 metres suddenly wasn't enough: Michael Johnson's "untouchable"  world record was required now. It hurt, it really hurt, but Usain Bolt rounded the bend and stoppd the clock at 19.30: a new mark that nobody but he is likely to threaten for a generation. Orson Wells was cursed by his achievement of writing, directing and producing Citizen Kane at the age of 25. Bolt completed his masterpiece at just 21. 

Thanks to all pseuds who have written above and below the line and a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Eboué and the Rights and Obligations of Football Crowds – Mac Millings

Last Saturday, Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboué was booed mercilessly by his own team’s fans during their game against Wigan. Such was the vehemence of the jeering, that it prompted Richard Williams to write on the Guardian SportBlog that, “It was the self-expression of the new breed of football fan, with his £1,000 season ticket and his increasing sense of entitlement…it is nasty, and it needs to be stopped.” Within hours, the article had become the most commented-upon on the Blog. The verdict was far from unanimous, and fans of every shirt had all kinds of opinions. So how are we to judge the reaction of the crowd towards Eboué? In order to answer this, we must address a broader question: what are the rights - and the obligations – of the ticket-buying crowd at a football match?

The mere purchase of a season ticket, even one that costs £1,000, does not, of course, guarantee to the buyer that they will be watching either high quality or successful football. And football being a game of passion, the first thought of the watching fan when things aren’t going well for his side is probably far more visceral than “You’ve got to do better than this – do you know how much my ticket cost?” But if that £1,000 price tag were reduced to £100 (or a £500 one to £50), yet the standard of football on offer remained the same, we’d have to expect fans to be at least a little happier. On that basis, we must admit that it’s not entirely unreasonable to factor ticket prices into fan dissatisfaction at least a little.

More important than the financial “investment” that fans are making when they pay to see their team play, is the emotional one. By purchasing a season ticket, fans enter into a loose form of contract with the club. The club, for its part, will provide entertainment in the form of a chance for the fans to see their side “live”. In turn, the fans will to provide support and encouragement to the team. In this way, we may say that the “contract” is mutually beneficial – the crowd gets to see its heroes up close, and the team reaps the benefit of a supportive crowd.

Supporting the side takes many guises, and includes both “positive” and “negative” types (in football, intimidation of the visiting side is arguably as important as support of the home team). Thus we find singing in praise of the team and/or individual players, jeering of opposition players and drowning out the cheering/jeering of visiting fans.

Fans may, of course, turn on their players when things aren’t going well., and we will address this issue shortly. Generally speaking, however, we may safely say that the main obligation of the football crowd is to protect the interests of the team.

Since these obligations extend to all fans of all clubs, we might consider them “rights”. In accordance with our tradition of free speech, jeering, booing, and criticising are permissible, although naturally there are exceptions. Fans’ rights do not, of course, extend to criticism on the basis of, say, skin colour or sexual orientation. However, they may include mockery regarding, for example, on-pitch performance and shirt colour.

Crowds jeer their opponents because it works. They suspect that the singing of songs aimed at encouraging an individual improves that individual’s performance, so they do it. Conversely, they suspect, and have doubtless seen that, while some may thrive on it, many opposing players are adversely affected when targeted for abuse. Crowds therefore know that it is counter productive to employ the same tactics on their own players.

As a result, loud criticism by fans of individual players on their own team is rare (which is why the Eboué case received such attention) – in cases of displeasure with an individual player, the crowd might instead target its wrath at the manager (who picks and deploys the players). Alternatively, the fans might sing the praises of a player on the bench whom they consider a superior alternative to the one with whom they are dissatisfied. A recent example in the US, showing what many considered to be both the acceptable and unacceptable sides of crowd dissatisfaction with a player, was when the fans of the Cleveland Browns football team, unhappy with the incumbent quarterback, Derek Anderson, chanted the name of their hoped-for replacement, Brady Quinn (acceptable), but later cheered a season-ending injury to Anderson as he was helped from the field of play (unacceptable). Like Alanis Morissette, I’m not an expert in what constitutes true irony, but the fact that a couple of games later Quinn himself suffered an injury that ruled him, too, out of the rest of the season might qualify.

So how does this all relate specifically to the Eboué situation? He was heavily criticised by the crowd that day - but acceptably, or not? Why did the Arsenal fans boo him? Those posting under the line on the SportBlog gave two main reasons: that he’s a “diver and a cheat”, and that he’s “crap”. The former doesn’t stand up. Fans do not, in my experience, boo their own players when they cheat – indeed, while they may be embarrassed in private, at matches some may even revel in it. It helps, of course, if he’s a good player. Skill, productivity, a good work ethic, even likeability, all contribute to encouraging fan support for an individual – or at the very least to protecting him from abuse. If, however, his performances are perceived to be to the detriment of the side, everything changes. He is no longer guaranteed the support of the crowd, whose main obligation, as I suggested earlier, is to protect the interests of the team. If the player in question happens to be a diver, lazy, and unlikeable (as some bloggers contended is the case with Eboué – I personally have not seen him play enough to comment), then abuse is likely to come his way the quicker.

“50,000 Geordies can’t be wrong” I once heard Kevin Keegan say. We’re all aware, of course, that the herd instinct and self-interest of a crowd mean that 50,000 people can be wrong. Perhaps, as some bloggers suggested, there are too many Johnny-Come-Lately “Tarquins” in the Arsenal crowd, meaning a lessened understanding of the game among those in the stands. Perhaps 20 years of success have resulted in too-high expectations from those watching. Nevertheless, if the crowd were booing him in order to express their belief that he was harming the team, even if they were wrong to do so, they were within their rights. Our advice to Mr. Eboue must, therefore, be to suck it up. To his credit, it appears that may be exactly what he is going to do.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"The Runyonesque Archetype" (a response to Ringo37's "Talking the Talk") - Beyond the Pale‏

A few words of response and clarification may be in order re. Ringo37's recent post here on the great sportswriting tradition of which the work of Damon Runyon (1880-1946) still stands as both prototype and principal representative.

First, Ringo37 credits Runyon with capturing "the familiar spirit of the Polo Fields and Madison Square Gardens".

To be a bit of a fact-stickler, actually that was not Polo Fields but Polo Grounds--at 157th Street, beneath Coogan's Bluff, in New York City, where assembled the cream of New York's sporting society in the baseball season of 1911, when Damon Runyon, the hottest young spark in the Hearst journalistic empire, freshly imported from Denver (where for the Denver Post he'd reported on the activities of Bat Masterson, ex-sheriff of Dodge City and prominent promoter of sporting and gambling activities in Denver) took up the baseball beat, covering the New York Giants of manager John McGraw for Hearst's American. Not polo but baseball--and business--took place at the Polo Grounds.

And among the kinds of business that took place there--like those which took place beginning in the late Twenties at Tex Rickard's Madison Square Garden, a singular garden in fact largely of gambling, blood and dirty money--were shady-side activities that Runyon knew intimately and wrote of with the authority of an insider.

Ringo37 and commentators on his piece have introduced several parallels among Runyon's contemporaries and successors. The first of these, and the best comparison, is Ring Lardner. Lardner began not at the Saturday Evening Post but as a junior writer at the American (when one of his pieces happened to appear above one of Runyon's, there was hell to pay, and it never happened again). But in their time it was well known that the differences between Runyon and Lardner were greater than the similarities. Both came from America's heartlands and wrote brilliantly in an invented and stylized version of the vernacular, but the likeness ended there.

Runyon was a tough, laconic teetotaler--a reformed drunk in fact--who lived and worked and traveled among the seamier precincts of Broadway. Lardner cultivated a slightly more genteel demeanor, drank heavily, was a Long Island neighbor of F.Scott Fitzgerald, and was socially conversant with a "literary" crowd (Scott and Zelda, Dorothy Parker, Edmund Wilson) who stood off from Runyon as the polite always stand off from those regarded as associates of the truly dangerous: Runyon's own associates included the dapper playboy Mayor Jimmy Walker, picturesque hoods like Abba Dabba Berman and terrifying gangster lords like Al Capone (who would one day be Runyon's neighbor in Florida).

In a fascinating review of what remains a useful book on the subject of what Ringo37 calls "the Runyonesque Archetype"--Tom Clark's The World of Damon Runyon--Lardner's son Ring, Jr. (himself no slouch as a writer, his credits including the M*A*S*H screenplay) underlines the basic opposition of character and temperament between his father and Runyon.

"Half a century ago in the Georgica section of East Hampton, where my father and Grantland Rice had bought land together and built adjoining houses on the ocean, there was a slight taint attached to the name of Damon Runyon...I got the impression in my teens that there was something vaguely shady about Damon Runyon. As Tom Clark points out, the disapproval was all on one side. Runyon couldn't understand why his colleagues would want to spend time a hundred miles from Broadway finding their favorite diversion in a game he disparaged 'because golf doesn't require any courage, except the pants'... He shared none of my father's fondness for Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker...or Granny Rice's for some leading figures of the social and business worlds. And they, moral and fastidious men both, couldn't understand what they regarded as a moral deficiency in him. It wasn't only gangsters and con men and ordinary denizens of the underworld whom Runyon chose as friends and drew on for fictional characters. He had quite a close relationship going with Al Capone, just as his friend Walter Winchell did with Lucky Luciano. And they felt there was something not quite right about a sportswriter getting involved in the actual promotion of athletic events, especially of prizefights with prearranged results."

Over the years Runyon covered the baseball Giants, a frequent guest in the Polo Grounds owners' box of the club was Arnold Rothstein, a New York gambling king. Rothstein would be made legendary by Runyon in short stories where he appears thinly-disguised as an imposing character called "The Brain", and also, somewhat more thickly veiled, would figure as the shadowy-grotesque "Meyer Wolfsheim" in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Among other questionable activities, he bankrolled the bucket shops and rum-running operations of one of the boxholding club owners Horace Stoneham; backed the Havana racetrack enterprise of Stoneham and manager McGraw; and even invested in a pool hall run by McGraw (Rothstein, as Runyon knew from first-hand observation, hung out there shooting nine-ball at $100 a game). When three policemen were shot in Rothstein's gambling parlor, the Partridge Club, another of the Giants owners, Judge Francis McQuade--as Runyon would report with typical close-mouthed cynicism--obligingly dismissed charges against twenty of twenty-one persons arrested. Rothstein had indeed personally brokered the McQuade-Stoneham-McGraw purchase of the Giants; it was not until a few years after it became apparent not only to Runyon and Fitzgerald but practically everybody else that Rothstein had also masterminded the infamous "fixing" of the 1919 World Series, that he was finally discouraged from appearing any more in the owners' box.

The difference between the Runyon "insider" strain of Golden Era sportswriting and the less-involved, more distanced Lardner "literary" strain is worth going into because it brings out an underlying class difference--which in turn sheds some interesting light on the latter-day parallels offered by Ringo37 and his Pseuds commentators.

For my money the only parallel cited by Ringo37 and his commentators that bears much weight is that brought up by Guitou: i.e. Jim Murray, the late, legendary Los Angeles Times sports columnist who consciously and openly patterned his writing approach after Runyon's, and to a great degree managed to live up to that high standard in his work over many decades.

As to others cited: Ringo37 mentions Hornby, Plimpton and Mailer. But Hornby's work is a bit too clever, selfconscious and distanced to really bear much relation to the tradition under discussion, and the more literary he gets the further away he moves from the prize ring/poolhall ambiance that is Runyon's home ground; "cute" is certainly one term not applicable to anything Runyon ever wrote. Plimpton and Mailer, even more, were "literary" writers whose other-side-of-the-tracks assignments on sporting beats always felt very much to this writer like high-class slumming. (Plimpton, for whom I once worked, was a prince of a fellow in many ways, but a tough guy he definitely was not; in fact he didn't have to be; it's a little-known fact, speaking of class as we were, that among the possessions of G.P.'s New England WASP family was the original manuscript of one of The Canterbury Tales.)

MouthoftheMersey introduces The New Yorker's Roger Angell and Anthony Lane into the discussion. The New Yorker and everything it represents, in terms of U.S. sociology, are diametric opposites of "the Runyonesque". Angell is a nice, polite, sensitive baseball writer who would have been entirely out of his depth on any Runyon assignment--say, interviewing Jack Dempsey about his days "riding the rails", or covering the murder trial of Ruth Snyder, who eliminated her spouse with one hefty swing of a sash weight. MacMillings hits the target here when he deftly dismisses Angell from the discussion as a "chin-stroking" type. And as for Anthony Lane, the movie critic, with this suggestion we have moved all the way across the board from the fight-ring to the fey (and I don't mean Tina).

One final note: Ringo37 laments that "England doesn't really have a sportswriting tradition". Is he being a strict purist and eliminating writers of Irish origin from consideration, or can it be he's really never heard of the wonderful historian of the London prize ring of several centuries ago, the immortal Pierce Egan? To put it as Egan's great fan Damon Runyon might once have, Pierce Egan's furbishment of fistic fact has never been surpassed. And that, fellow Pseuds, is saying something.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Histon v Leeds, 30 November 1973 - mountainstriker

Histon’s recent victory over Leeds was a classic FA Cup tie featuring ITV coverage that equalled its glory days of the World of Sport and The Big Match. Leaving the Guild Hall in Hartlepool where Big Daddy - roared on by a crowed of homicidal grannies high on a lethal cocktail of gin and mint imperials - had finally triumphed over Jim Breaks, Steve Rider, his bouffant greying visibly on camera, welcomed us to the Glassworld Stadium - home of Histon Town.

Battered throughout by a North Sea gale that seemed to pick up mud as it hammered across the Fens, the pitch had been reduced to a quagmire on which carefully weighted passes became becalmed like dumplings in my old Mum’s stew. Not that you could tell mind. Every time the lens panned towards the Histon goal, it was met by a volley of rain that obliterated everything as completely as Kevin Keegan on a bike. Shots between cameras were accompanied by the off screen squeak of hanky on lens and, as the half wore on, a halo of steam leant the action the kind of soft focus usually only afforded to Joan Collins.

It got better. As another clearance was shanked onto the A14, Peter Drury, who now surely deserves to be mentioned in the same breadth as Gerald Sinstadt, was heard to chuckle ‘That’s your ball Jim!’ before seconds later Leeds fans grabbed a pitchside microphone and treated the nation to a heartfelt rendition of ‘ITV…is fucking shit…’

As the combination of mud, rain, pies and Thermos steam rendered the players and crowed increasingly indistinguishable, the sense of time warp grew stronger – scarves became longer and more stripy, shorts got shorter, coloured boots became a uniform shade of brown and hair got longer. Then, just as you thought it couldn’t get any weirder, Histon’s Mathew Langston, sideburns flaring to Dave Watson proportions, rose like a miner from the pit to put the part timers in front with a header so firm that the smack of wet leather on head could be heard as far away as 1973.

It was all too much for the west Cambridge electricity grid, which (and I swear this is true) suffered a power cut that sent us scrambling for long forgotten transistor radios. Tuning our dials carefully, we were shocked to hear the sounds of Sport on 2 where Peter Jones was noting that Langston was a postman who was only able to play that day because he was on strike. Mercifully, a 120% pay increase was immediately forthcoming and power was quickly restored thus allowing us to see a Peter Lorimer hot shot unwittingly deflected over the bar by Histon sub Antonio Murray. For all the world, Murray appeared to have merely wandered across the goalmouth en route to his local corner shop for a can of Younger’s Tartan Ale and a packet of Spangles. ‘Oooowww! Leeds are NEVER gonna score!’ howled Sinstadt. ‘Not until at least 1992’ I thought.

At the final whistle, Histon fans invaded the pitch as the sound of Queen’s We are the Champions echoed around the ground. Marvelling at a truly great day for the FA Cup, I turned off my telly and sat in silence as the white dot faded gently from the screen. It was Sunday, so I picked up the paper and returned to the grim tidings of recession, war in the Middle East and the threat of international terrorism. Ah, I see that Slade are releasing a song entitled Merry Christmas Everybody…

The fighter still remains - Ringo37

In the week I was born, and in the city where I was born, Paul Sykes fought the Connecticut heavyweight Dave ‘Doc’ Wilson at the Theatre Club, and beat him up so badly Wilson was hospitalised for a month. A year later, in the summer of 1979, he challenged Hackney’s John Louis Gardner for the British Empire Heavyweight Championship, and lost; nine months after that, in Lagos, Nigeria, he was knocked out in the first round of his last professional fight.

Sykes died last month, at the age of sixty.

I remember him only at his worst – as a big man sat on a bus-station bench with a can of Special Brew in his fist, all bristle and bile, all mad-eyed belligerence and garbled snarl; to my dad, around town in the late 70s, Sykes was a face, and a face to be avoided if he’d had a few.

A tribute was paid to the ex-champ (BBB of C, Central Area) by the Baptist Church he attended during his period of homelessness. “There will be many things said about Paul in the next few days,” read a note posted on the church’s website, “but infinitely more important will be God's words to him. May they be full of mercy and grace.”

Mercy and grace; precious little of either in a boxer’s life.

Emollient churchisms aside, Sykes’s death passed pretty much unremarked by the world at large; his obituary runs to six digits – W6, L3, D1 – and beyond that no-one, save for those who knew and loved him, seems to have had much to say.

But a boxer leaves marks.

There’s a temptation, in looking over the old fight cards, to play at Six Degrees of Separation – something along the lines of, I danced with a boy who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales. Well, Paul Sykes fought with a man who fought with a man who fought with Muhammad Ali.

“I hated Ali,” Joe Frazier told Thomas Hauser in 1997. “Twenty years, I’ve been fighting Ali, and I still want to to take him apart piece by piece and send him back to Jesus.”

Frazier’s bitterness towards Ali is breathtaking. Is this how boxers remember boxers?

“Look at him now; he’s damaged goods.”

No peace, yet, for Frazier; no mercy, and no grace. Ali left marks on Smokin’ Joe.

“He’s finished,” Frazier insisted to Hauser. “He’s finished, and I’m still here.

The last man to knock Paul Sykes down in the ring was the Nigerian Ngozika Ekwelum. Ekwelum, like Ali, seems to have found peace beyond boxing – but, where Ali turned to Islam, Ekwelum found his calling in self-help. On his website, the Heavyweight Champion of Africa turned cornerman for the soul doled out wisdom that ranged from the arbitrarily severe (“You must be awake by 5.00 a.m.”) through the baffling (“In order to succeed in boxing, you must have the right metalatitude”) to the soporifically banal (“Winners are positive thinkers who see good in all things”).

But it’s peace, still, of a sort, and not to be sniffed at.

“Paul loved listening to the music [at church services],” reports the website of Wakefield Baptist Church. Even that is something; many a fighter, forgotten or not, finishes up with less.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Rule Changes in Sport. Carpe Diem - PhilWest

[Editor's note: this was a lot more timely, but I'm rubbish at uploading things at the moment. Don't blame Mr West though]

In this modern era where time is of the essence, some sporting contests just go on for too long. There’s a long unnecessary build-up of tension.

Must we really be forced to watch a tennis match for three hours, an F1 Grand-prix for close to two hours, and darts for three and a half pints?

No. Let’s cut to the chase.

To enable true fans to be able to enjoy their sport and yet also allow them time to email all their friends/work colleagues/partners; update their Facebook page; and drink themselves senseless; I propose the following:

The game starts at 90 – 90 with all players on four fouls. Games to last two minutes. All fouls to the free-throw line. No time-outs.

Best of one. 159-down.

Only play Twenty-20. Assume England have made 113-9. Give the opposition the Duckworth – Lewis target for five overs.

All races to be three laps. Drivers placed on grid in reverse order.

All field events to be reduced to just one round. Track events over 1500m to be abolished.

First punch to the chin wins.

(I thought I’d leave boxing as it is)

Tour de France:
To be decided by the total time over two stages: The first being the top 2km of the “Col de la Forclaz”, and the second being from Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe.

Put Tiger on the tee of any hole anywhere. Tell him he needs a birdie to win. If he fails, share the prize-money between everyone else.

Must dash!

Talking the talk - Ringo37

During the summer of 1913 the Chicago Record-Herald, somewhat alarmed by the extravagant fancy of its baseball reporters, asked its readers if they would prefer a return to plain English. Such of them as were literate enough to send in their votes were almost unanimously against a change. As one of them said, “one is nearer the park when Schulte slams the pill than when he merely hits the ball”.
- HL Mencken, The American Language (1921)

England doesn’t really have a sportswriting tradition. Of course, that’s not to say that it doesn’t have a truly great tradition of writers writing about sport – but there really isn’t such a thing as an English sportswriter. Neville Cardus wrote on opera as well as cricket; Nick Hornby publishes marvellous books that aren’t about football as well as marvellous ones that are; Hugh McIlvanney would have been a great writer even if he’d never set foot in Rugby Park or the 20th May Stadium.

What, then, differentiates the sportswriter from the writer who writes on sport? Well, looking like this helps, but it isn’t strictly necessary. A sportswriter, for me, has to live and breathe the smoke, sweat and slang of his place of work – and, for me, that place of work is always the locker-room, the racetrack, the ballpark, or the boxing-ring, because, for me, the sportswriter is almost always an American.

Take Damon Runyon, for years the familiar spirit of the Polo Fields and Madison Square Gardens. Or Ring Lardner, whose baseball yarns for the Saturday Evening Post seem to reek of the bleachers and the bullpen even if you don’t know a swing from a bunt from a hole in the ground. Or the great Red Smith, whose approach to sportswriting was to “get to where the cabbage is cooking and smell the scents”.

The words are the thing: the words make the game, and in return the game makes the words.

Even when the sportswriter comes with a college degree or a Pulitzer prize attached, the focus seems still to be on the words that bubble up from the soul of the sport: see the relish with which George Plimpton recited the “splendid variety” of nicknames adopted by golf caddies (“Cut Shot, Violence, Texas Sam, the Wolfman, the Rabbit…”), or Norman Mailer’s willingness to play the role of amenuensis to Ali’s illiterate-but-gobby cornerman Bundini Brown in The Fight.

English writing on sport has traditionally adopted one of two distinct approaches. If it’s front-line, phoned-in-at-the-whistle reportage, you can expect a stultifying bodge-job of cliché and banality. If, on the other hand, it’s highbrow copy for the quality press, you’ll have to wait – till the next Sunday supplement or issue of Sports Illustrated, maybe, or till the William Hill shortlist shows you the way; it’s writing designed for leisurely digestion over the breakfast egg or chin-stroking rumination amid tactics chalkboards and old Subbuteo sets. Where are the English sportswriters who can spit out stories as punchy and pungent as tobacco-juice? – the guys (and dolls) who, in AJ Liebling’s phrase, can write better than anyone who can write faster, and faster than anyone who can write better?

Well, maybe they’re right here – online. Minute-by-minute reportage by the likes of Cricinfo, the BBC and, oh okay then, the Guardian has brought an immediacy to the written sports report that outstrips the rattling typewriters of even the most deadline-crazed old-school pressroom. And it’s here that we find hoicks and nurdles, flays and funks, slugfests and gamefaces – here, just like on the pitch or in the ring, spontaneity takes precedence over pontificating, and the language is as lively as the onfield action.

Half the time, I don’t give a damn whether a sportswriter knows his stuff or not; half the time, all that matters is that he talks the talk. The poet Carl Sandburg said that slang was “a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”. True enough – but it’s also a language that more than earns its corn when it just pulls on a fedora, lights up a cigar and goes out to play.

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