Wednesday, 13 January 2021

John Fashanu's dumbing down was ahead of it's time and gave the world Mr Tumble

During his otherwise distinguished playing career, Ian Wright was often asked to explain himself to FA disciplinary committees; "Why did you stick two fingers up to those Oldham fans?; "Why did you punch that Tottenham player?; "Why did you try and break that football near the Manchester United goalie?" Blah, blah, yawny, yawn, blah!

The result of these meetings had a detrimental effect on the lifespan of Wright's Arsenal's goals record, and earned him a number of scattered winter breaks years before the English game invented them (after the rest of Europe) but life is a a bit cosier in the pundit world he now inhabits, where the less regulatory board of Gary Lineker is the only one he has to answer to. And yet, on Saturday evening (9/1/21) after Arsenal had beaten Newcastle United 2-0 in the BBC's live FA Cup 3rd Round match, 'Links' appeared to call into question Wright’s observation on the attacking instincts of Arsenal's Emile Smith-Rowe.

"Explain what you mean by “'play on the half turn'", Gary tapped back at him, presumably for the benefit of those viewers who'd never seen a game of football before but had stumbled upon this fan-free fixture and persevered with it all the way through 90 minutes of plotless ambling - and the start of The Masked Singer on the other side - then extra time, where finally they got their "rewards" by being present for a drilling down into a term of expression for attacking intent. 

Visibly taken aback by the request for justification of his words, Wright could have indeed been forgiven for assuming that a whole new audience had inexplicably tuned in, eager to add "half turn" to "fleckerl" and "soggy bottom" from other 'reality' shows. Floundering, Wrighty suffered the ignominy of having his scrambled words interrupted and clarified by Alan Shearer - a man who'd enjoyed a far jollier relationship with the FA interrogation panel, particularly if meeting just before a World Cup -  jumping in to save the day like Jake Wood (aka Max Branning) when Scott Maslen (aka Jack Branning), completely lost it in the live EastEnders.

Watching from his home not too far from North London, ex Wimbledon striker John Fashanu would have been shaking his head in dismay. If there was anyone better placed to present a pitch-based glossary of terms to an uneducated public, then John couldn't think of them. Fash has never received the recognition he thinks he deserves for his co-commentaries during USA 94, where he, voluntarily mind, took on the role of educator to the masses; back then, he'd heard that many had fallen in love with football on the back of Italia 90, and expected that another section of many would be tuning in to BBC to hear all about this curious sporting event. 

Fash never made it beyond the group stage at USA 94, but left an indelible mark on the tournament. During his predictable stationing at African nation games, he observed in one match the age old trick of a player slotting the ball through another another player's legs and was more than happy to be there to enlighten the sofa-dwelling natives.

"That's called 'a nutmeg'".   

This information was brought to the viewer in a tone later perfected by cBeebies legend Justin Fletcher, who famously attributes his career to Fash, explaining that something special lit up in him during Nigeria-Bulgaria. 

"Honestly I can't owe him enough", the alter-ego of Mr Tumble told us; "I was a young man going nowhere, slumped in front of the telly with nothing but a wacky costume, and then this guy starts talking...it was a game-changer; all I had to do was tweak the patronising element and harness it to better use. You sign!...oh sorry, force of habit!...aaaaay!"

Hearing that he was the inspiration for Fletcher's success, Fash said it was "humbling but not surprising", and though work commitments (Fletcher's) have stunted their friendship growth, it is believed that the children's entertainer is Fash's favourite ever Justin.

Years before 'Fash and Fletch' was written off as a workable idea, the former was approached by an independent company to expand on his World Cup performance by fronting a DVD charting the history of football-speak. However, talks broke down when Fash insisted on using clips of his own playing days to illustrate the action. "This is known as 'a skull-cracking, eye-socket smashing elbow to the head" was deemed a non-starter with those out-of-touch FA disciplinary stiffs.

An embittered Fash was left to ply his trade on ITV's Gladiators, where his change of tack was most evident in never telling anyone what "Awooga" meant.    

The demise of Gladiators amid the advent of the 21st century left the Fash trail to go cold, although he did get back into work for a lesser know cable channel covering the 2010 World Cup, where he exclaimed that "the keeper's had a mare there!", adding further fuel to the suggestion that he'd scaled back on his previous philosophy.

Fash wasn't asked to provide a detailed analysis of his insight to the viewers, but once upon a time would have been happy to do so.                          

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Fame! I'm going to live for not long enough, I'm going to learn how to die young!

Diego Maradona's death this year came on the same day (November 25th) as George's Best's in 2005; also on this day, amateur 'southpaw' Rocky Bilbao overcame Spider Rico in Philadelphia, 1975; and on this same day in 1974, my former Arlon Printers Sunday League strike partner Lee Eveson was born.

Three of those men earned a reputation, globally or locally, for enjoying 'interesting' nights out. The other two men are made up. Two of the non-fictional beings are popularly regarded as the greatest football player ever, while the other can factually claim to have scored the most goals in the 1998-99 Berkhamsted Sunday League Division 5 season.

Perhaps it is folly that the 38-goal Eveson has never had a book or a documentary made about him;  the close attention that both Maradona and Best received from defenders, fans and the press seemed to me, at least - and admittedly through a lager-fuelled blur of resentment - comparable to the relentless stream of women in local nightclubs staking a claim on my team mate and friend. Yet, it is only the Argentinian and the Northern Irishman who can be readily found on film or in print.

Plainly it is the visual form that brings Maradona and Best out into their greatest light. All you need to know about them as super-elite footballers can be found in their skill on screen; the talent so breathtaking it's funny as yet another hoodwinked defender is cruelly exposed; the unique brain in tandem with the quickness of feet; the acute awareness of others, and the channeling of that brilliance into a team structure; the willingness to confront ever-present brutality and face it over and over and over again. Words can be interesting to explain some of the pictures, but if you are lucky enough to be blessed with sight, seeing these greats in action is worth more than a million chapters.

Despite having indulged in the world of the footballer autobiography since before 1986, when Maradona turbo-charged Argentina to their second World Cup title, I wasn't interested in El Diego, his book that first came out in 2000. I have been a passionate fan of Maradona since '86 but knew hitherto of his penchant for hysteria and bitterness. As a 10 or 11 year old, I had even enjoyed Graham Roberts' autobiog 'Hard As Nails' (which my dad owned courtesy of his employment in the Press) but, 15 or so years later, wasn't tempted to own the publication of, in my humble opinion, the best player ever. Maybe I didn't want Maradona’s irrational spiel to tarnish the physical poetry. 

The great players don't always produce great books. Peter Shilton - whose admiration of Maradona’s on-field conduct is well documented - put one out that even I couldn't be arsed to finish (normally I take less than a week to scoff down an autobiog) and Bryan Robson's was equally heavy on match recollection and light on flawed off-pitch decisions that might have drawn the reader in in the first place.

Yet a couple of years ago I did buy Touched By God, Maradona's account of 'How We Won Mexico '86. Judging by the title, you mighty expect this book to be an uplifting read of a very special time for Argentinian citizens, but which in reality is a 300 page rant directed at FIFA, Carlos Bilardo and the Argentinian FA, interspersed with passive aggressive digs at Pele and Lionel Messi. The energy of perceived betrayal drives the book like he powered the team to history. 

Sadly, both Maradona and Best died prematurely on their respective days and years, crying foul play, unable to have hurdled all the dark challenges of fame. They will be revered forever, although the end of their stories might offer consolation to a striker born on the same day as their deaths who literally wasn't in their league.                     

    

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