Tuesday 21 July 2020

Choosing the reality of less but real noise and wanting more from Turf Moor

Without the fans in the stadium no one will bother watching on the telly, because without the fans, no one is interested.

At least that's what I thought until recently. In these "unprecedented times" (yes we know, yawn!) even the BBC gets to have a share of the live football, the might of Covid finally bringing us a monster greater than Murdoch, enabling us peasants without the money or morals for TV subscriptions to watch Premier League games happening right in front of our eyes, and as they happen, rather than hours after the result is widely known (Terry and Bob wouldn't stand a chance avoiding the score these days, modern technology and social media would get them long before Brian Flint). Southampton versus Manchester City, a match up of one team who were safe from relegation and another who'd all but secured 2nd place, 100 points behind the champions, Liverpool, became the most watched Premier League game ever. Take that Murdo!

What was I thinking? Of course we will still watch; millions used to be glued to their sets watching Big Brother, getting an eyeful of some sales rep picking her nose and eating it to show she was being "true to herself"; millions in this country watch Mrs Brown's Boys, a middle aged man dressed as a woman in her senior years repeatedly bashing people over the head with a saucepan; and rumour has it, a couple of people even tuned in to Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps after the first series.

I watched Southampton-Man City, just as I'd followed Crystal Palace-Bournemouth a couple of weeks before it, which was BBC's first game back, 32 years after the last, Arsenal versus Spurs at Highbury (I watched that as well, obsv...yes that's right 2-1 to The Arse, Perry Groves scoring the winner.) Match-going fans who are used to being patronised in the comfort of their own expensive seats can now be  patronised in the comfort of their own loose-springed armchair or sofa, if they can still afford one. Manufactured crowd noise is played in to match the action, an 'ooh' and 'ahh' and even the odd boo thrown in, although never a "get out of my club you clueless twat!" or, my personal favourite chant, "It's not football anymore!" whenever VAR intervenes. In one of the first games after the restart, Newcastle United's Jonjo Shelvey blasted a free kick into the 3rd tier of St James' Park, to which the fake crowd went "oooh!" like he'd hit the post.

Today it still rankles that one of the Premier League bigwigs, just before the restart, said "we will miss our loyal fans". "Our?" So you're admitting that you think you own us then? And we certainly aren't fans of you! The fake crowd noise is symbolic of how the hobnobs see us; we are there just to pay and react. We know that under normal circumstances they try and drown us out with these stadium announcers e-numbered to the eyeballs and need to belittle our presence with pyrotechnics and light shows. When Burnley played Wolves last week I'd finally found the option to turn off the crowd noise, and it was much better. Admittedly, my eight and five year olds were making enough noise as it was. They didn't let up until half time, finally going upstairs to play with duplo, although making sure they were back just in time for the start of the second half.

I was surprised that Burnley didn't have a Black Lives Matter flag on show at Turf Moor. The clubs don't have to adorn the empty spaces with visuals of course, but they all are and, like most, Burnley had an NHS thank you banner, which was great, a rainbow coloured one which could have been LGBTQ+, also great if it was, and there were also actual Burnley FC messages too, but I couldn't see a Black Lives Matter one, which you see at every other stadium. I just thought this was an opportunity to respond to the sad White Lives Matter helicopter banner that flew over the Etihad stadium in Burnley's first game back. This was a banner orchestrated by a young man who insists he isn't racist because he knows black people, although has had his photo taken with Tommy Robinson of the English Defence League.

Yes, we shouldn't have to pander to ignoramuses, but the importance of calling out this behaviour is now more keenly felt than ever, and though Ben Mee, the captain, did so brilliantly after the City game, diverting the start of the interview from match-based detail to emphatically distance the football club from the air display, wouldn't a nice big banner have satisfyingly re-enforced his words?

I used to wonder about Burnley, and why in the Sean Dyche era there have never been any black players, or none that I can remember, in the first team, like at Everton even in the nineties ("Everton are white" some sang). There will be reasons why, and unconnected to race, but the lack of a Black Lives Matter flag led me towards thinking about this all-white union again, and also made me recall the allegations of racism towards Burnley strker Jay Rodrigues by Brighton defender Gaetano Bong last season. Rodriguez, Burnley born and now back at the club where he started, was at West Bromwich Albion when accused by Bong, but the following week, when Brighton played at Turf Moor, Bong was roundly booed. Looking after their own? Yes. Dismissing the possibility of a black man being racially abused? Yes.

Rodriguez wasn't found guilty, and as much as Dyche can irritate me, I have no evidence to suggest he is prejudiced, nor do I suspect that he is. I just thought Burnley could have done with a banner.                                


Sunday 12 July 2020

A tribute to Jack Charlton - a giant of the game

"Jack Charlton is like you'd expect him to be" said my dad at home one day, back in the time he covered Charlton's Republic of Ireland teams as a sports journalist for the Press Association.

The conversation came about after someone mentioned Charlton's disapproving response to an 'Ugly Footballer's 11' formed as a joke by Andy Townsend, who was Charlton's captain for the Irish then. 'Big Jack' found the imaginary team particularly displeasing to the eye as it contained his own brother, Bobby, who it seemed was sensitive about such things. The fallout, if you will, came during an international break - or rather a break for internationals - and Dad told us how he and the other writers had tried to reason with 'Big Jack' that Townsend was "just having a joke" but that the manager was unmoved, himself sensitive to the sensitivities of his younger sibling.

Many believed that Townsend himself played for an unattractive team whenever he turned up to represent his country - even when playing alongside such handsome devils as Roy Keane and Jason McAteer - Charlton's style as direct as he came across on telly. But it's nice sometimes not to have to be a purist and just celebrate a moment in time, like the decade of green we were given (but no, Lord Percy, not the purest green). 

Not that I was a fan at first. When Charlton was appointed manager of the Republic in 1986 to succeed Eoin Hand, I couldn't foresee that their fortunes on the pitch would be any better that what had come before, which widely was very little given they had never qualified for an international tournament. Even with Johnny Giles, Mark Lawrenson, David O' Leary and Liam Brady representing Eire in the 70's and 80's, they hadn't managed to reach the centre of world football like their counterparts of similar population, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The Scots may have been derided for defeats by lesser minnows, but at least they'd made their big stage stories and, as well as the Northern Irish, created World Cup folklore. 

As far as my 10 year old eyes could see, Charlton was merely another World Cup winner from '66 who couldn't transfer his playing success to the managerial game, his spells at Sheffield Wednesday and his hometown club, Newcastle United, merely the best of a sorry return from the likes of Moore, Hurst, Ball and brother, Bobby. I was further disengaged by his banishment of O'Leary - my first favourite Arsenal player - over a country vs holiday argument and by an equal rejection of Brady over the playing system.

What I didn't appreciate was that Charlton's way was like George Graham's - if leaning more to the commitment side than style of play - and I wasn't so much minding that. What couldn't be ignored was that Charlton started out with a 1-0 friendly defeat to Wales in his opening game in 86 and then, two years later, his team were beating England 1-0 in the opening game of the European Championships in Frankfurt, Germany. Ray Houghton scored the goal, with a header, 'little Ray Houghton' travelling beyond himself like Big Jack. 

Listening to Houghton speak you hear an unmistakably Scottish voice, and the man - by a quirk of the camera operator - that you see first, wildly celebrating his club and country team mate's goal, John Aldridge, is as scouse as his memorable spells at Liverpool and Tranmere Rovers would suggest. Charlton, to some humour and much mockery, exploited loopholes and gaps in the market to add weight to his project. Sophisticated footballers had to adapt, while the fans just had to turn up - and they did, in great humour and noise everywhere, belying the size of their nation.  

With those fans, I was again initially sceptical; all these merry jesters draped in flags, invading places all over the world with their commitment to fun and beer - since when did they love football so much? Were they not more into their gaelic football, or the rugby? Was football just the pathway to bleary-eyed adventure?    

But O'Leary, born in Cork, and his very achievements in the game a testament to his love for it, was back in the squad for Italia 90, even scored the winning penalty in the second phase shoot-out against a Romania of Hagi and Raducioiu, and Brady had been in the commentary box cheering him on. Next up was Italy in the quarter final, the hosts no less, in the capital city of Rome. The Pope met the Irish contingent. I wasn't a fan of that Pope, but look what was happening under Big Jack's leadership. It was a whirlwind.

The Republic just missed out on a third successive tournament, narrowly coming second to England - pitted against them yet again in qualifiers for 92, following the battles of 88 and 90 - despite bombarding them at Lansdown Road and at Wembley, the draw under the Twin Towers spookily reminiscent in both the result and in their dominance of the 1-1  in Sardinia. Charlton's opposite number, Graham Taylor - perhaps envious that his own brand of aerial pressure had been overshadowed - blamed goalkeeper David Seaman for the dropped points, accusing him of not driving his players out of the box during the onslaught. Predecessor Bobby Robson had done no such thing with Peter Shilton, who'd faced the same barrage a year earlier and, in Arsenal's next home game against Aston Villa - the club Taylor had left to became England boss -  the North Bank greeted Seaman's arrival for the warm up with the chant "Graham Taylor is a wanker!" Seaman typically responded with a big grin. 

Seaman was regularly amused by the terrace japes, an example being at Loftus Road in September 92-93 where the fans in the away end behind him collectively observed the apparent lack of neck present on home defender, Andy Impey (who was similar to cricket player Gladstone Small in that respect.) Jogging to the ball that had gone out for a goal kick, Seaman in turn had the away end laughing by virtue of just how funny he found the chant. Ironically too - and as was habit with Seaman - it was the kind of tickled reaction that brought his head into his shoulders.

Suddenly we're back to poking fun at the human form again, and though I obviously found the whole Loftus Road episode hilarious, I would have been 18 at the time and just a few years into the monstrous nose job that had so generously been crafted on me at no expense by the world famous Puberty Surgeons Ltd. Skinny as a rake and with that thing bulging out of a gawky face that had yet to 'grow into itself', the admittedly suffocating attention I received from girls at 12 and 13 had now dwindled to nothing, and spilled over into repulsion just when it would have been useful. 

So I empathised with Big Jack over his protection of Bobby from Andy Townsend's darkplace humour.

Jack said England were "lucky" to qualify ahead of his team for Euro 92, something Gary Lineker light-heartedly mocked on television soon after, although considering how that tournament turned out for both him and Taylor's England, perhaps it would have been better had the Irish been there instead. Jack for one, was there in Sweden, working for ITV and, typically forthright, told Elton Welsby at a game the next night that Taylor was right to take Lineker off against Sweden, unwittingly ending his international career.         

"In fact, I wrote at the time - "right" - Jack said.

In 94, at the USA World Cup, Jack and the Irish were back - and England were not. It was the last tournament on this great expedition for the jolly green heroes and this management team, but there were still some stories to tell. They won 1-0 over eventual finalists, Italy, in the opening game in New York, Houghton again with a bolt from the blue, and then in the second game, a 2-1 defeat to Mexico, Charlton and Aldridge engaged in a touchline row with useless FIFA officials who wouldn't let the forward on to the pitch even though the player going the other way had left it.  As a result, Jack was forced to watch the next match, a 0-0 draw with Norway that was good enough to send them through to the last 16 again, from about 100 feet up inside a building overlooking the pitch. I remember my mum chuckling at the sight of him in there:

"He's been a naughty little boy!"   

Sometimes it takes someone normally removed from the game to highlight how absurd it can be. 

Back in the studio as a pundit for the 3rd/4th place play-off between Bulgaria and Sweden, Jack said he liked Hristo Stoichkov as a player but was annoyed by his "moaning and falling over" as he tried  in vain to become the leading scorer and win the Golden Boot. 

"Maradona ended up like that", he said.

Host Matt Lorenzo quipped "Jack Charlton - not a fan".

My Dad, himself back in the house after Ireland's exit, snapped back "He is - if you listen to him!"

Big Jack and the Irish narrowly missed out again on Euro qualification for the 96 "Greartest ever Euros" in England, in fact his team losing in a play off to the Dutch at Anfield. He was a pundit for the tournament, as honest and interesting as you'd expect. I found it funny after the England-Holland game ("dull" he'd predicted) that he said he often forgot that the 66' Final ended 4-2 and not 3-2. Those that knew him might say that was typical of his Bobby Robson-like mind for getting names and facts wrong, and though he did actually end up with dementia, as well as lymphoma at the end of his life, no one should ever forget this great man who was just like you'd expect him to be.      



End of season Premier League review club by club Part 2: 11-20

11th: Brighton & Hove Albion (48 points) Finishing one point behind your made up rivals must sting. A bit. It’s Millwall who hate Crysta...