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Time’s Ravages

On Match of the Day a few weeks ago the commentator on Leicester City’s game mentioned that seven years ago Danny Drinkwater (I think) had been turning out for Leicester against Stockport County in the third tier and now he was at the top of the Premiership, remarking what a contrast that was.

I thought, wait a minute, it’s not just Leicester whose fortunes have changed.

In that season Leicester won League One and began the journey back to the big time whereas Stockport County ended it 18th, partly due to a ten point deduction for going into administration.

The next season Stockport finished dead bottom and went down to League Two. (Norwich City won League One that season: yo-yoing up and down the divisions is second nature to some.) The season after that Stockport completed their descent through the Football League by also finishing bottom – of League Two – and so to relegation out of it.

Two more seasons and they even fell out of the Conference into the Conference North. This is the sixth tier of English football, a regionalised league, where they remain, 11th as I write. (Despite this regionalisation in its lower reaches the Conference is now called the National League.)

Football can be a cruel sport.

Notwithstanding this tale of woe Stockport have what on the face of it seems an unlikely fame in China once even having a Chinese team named after them. As that article reminds us at one time Stockport County were the second biggest team in the Manchester area, lording it over Manchester City.

They still manage to attract crowds of over 3000 to their Edgeley Park Ground (image from the link above):-

Edgeley Park

While researching this post I came across this Football League Fourth Divison (as it then was) top four from season 1966-7:-

1. Stockport County P 46 W 26 D 12 L 8 F 69 A 42 GA 1.643 Pts 64
2. Southport P 46 W 23 D 13 L 10 F 69 A 42 GA 1.643 Pts 59
3. Barrow P 46 W 24 D 11 L 11 F 76 A 54 GA 1.407 Pts 59
4. Tranmere Rovers P 46 W 22 D 14 L 10 F 66 A 43 GA 1.535 Pts 58

(For my younger readers the GA statistic is for goal average, the precursor to goal difference for separating clubs equal on points – for which in those days there were only two for a win. It’s an interesting quirk that the top two here had identical goal scoring and conceding records but Stockport had won three more games.)

Admittedly it’s forty-nine years on but all four of these clubs are now plying their trade outside the Football League, albeit in Tranmere’s case only for this 2015-16 season. Barrow and Southport have in their time also fallen to the sixth tier – more than once – but have managed to climb back up to the fifth level again.

Maybe Stockport can do so too some time. Whether they can ever outdo Manchester City again is more doubtful.

¿Qué pasa en Hartlepool?

This post’s title is adapted from an Argentinian newspaper headline (¿Qué pasa en Suecia?) I saw on a TV programme about the history of Argentine football when the national team was widely perceived to have underperformed in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden and recieved a hostile reception on their return to Argentina. (See their Group 1 results if you look on here.)

AS to the meat of the post; after bumbling along just above the relegation zone for much of this season (unlike last where they were firmly rooted there before what seemed an almost miraculous escape) Hartlepool United have gone on a similar late run, not losing in their last seven games and winning five of those. (See League Two table and current form here.)

Of course, by mentioning this I’ll have jinxed it. The ‘Pool will most likely lose at Carlisle tonight, now.

Johan Cruyff

Oh dear. Johan Cruyff, once the greatest footballer in the world, undisputedly the greatest in the time between the careers of Pele and Maradonna, has died.

Together with the coach Rinus Michels, he was the most exquisite of the proponents of Total Football. The Ajax and Dutch teams of which he was the prominent member were a delight to watch. He is also one of the few footballlers to have a manoeuvre named after him, the Cruyff turn.

He has a particular place in the memories of Sons fans of a certain generation for at least having considered joining the club at one point. A short-lived Sons fanzine (remember fanzines?) was titled Cruyff Says No in tribute.

One of the greats has gone.

Hendrik Johannes Cruijff: 25/4/1947 – 24/3/2016. So it goes.

Serial Manager Slayers!

So, Livingston have sacked manager Mark Burchill.

That’s three opponents in a row whose managers Sons have seen off.

First Alloa, then St Mirren and now Livingston.

Can we dare hope to polish off the next two as well? Falkirk’s Peter Houston and Rangers’s Mark Warburton?

No; me neither.

Well, maybe Warburton.

Jimmy Hill

I was sorry to hear today of the death of Jimmy Hill and especially that he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

As a player he was relatively undistingusihed (or is that perception of mine just because he played before football became plastered all over the TV?) but as chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association he was instrumental in having the cap on footballers’ wages removed in 1961, leading to today’s high salaries in the upper echelons. As a manager he brought Coventry City up two divisions before leaving for a career in TV.

As a pundit he was always worth listening to but famously annoyed Scottish football fans by describing David Narey’s goal against Brazil at the 1982 Word Cup as a “toe-poke.” Both sides played up to the supposed antipathy his remark engendered but in reality he got on very well with any Scottish fans he encountered.

James William Thomas “Jimmy” Hill: 22/7/1928 – 19/12/2015. So it goes.

Salford City 1-1 Hartlepool United

FA Cup Round 2, Moor Lane Stadium, 4/12/15.

I posted about Hartlepool United this time last year at the same stage of the competition and again when the club miraculously retained its football league status in April.

So once again Pools were on live television courtesy of the BBC and its FA Cup coverage but apart from converting a penalty weren’t much in the game first half where Salford had much more possession and looked more threatening especially with the dead ball – culminating in a goal when their player reacted quickly in a second ball situation from a free kick.

Second half there was an improvement by Pools perhaps catalysed by the wonderfully named sub Rakish Bingham who looked very lively. Unfortunately he missed a header from five yards as did Scott Fenwick both of which would have removed the necessity for a replay. Salford also had their chances but couldn’t get past Trevor Carson in Pools’ goal.

1-1 at the end. At least I’m not a televisual jinx.

Manager Ronnie Moore was scathing about the performance after the match. His assessment was spot on. If Pools play for 90 mins in the replay they ought to get through.

Despite a winning start to the season Pools still lurk towards the bottom of League Two. I’m still nervous about that.

World Cup Draw

Hmmm. Interesting.

England, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta.

It’s tricky. Not as tricky as Group A though; or G. And it might have been better to be in Group B.

The England games will take care of themselves, I suppose, but we’ve come unstuck against Lithuania before.

We’ll just have to make the best of it.

The Hope That Kills Us edited by Adrian Searle

An anthology of Scottish football fiction. Polygon, 2003, 191 p.

 The Hope That Kills Us cover

From Stuart Cosgrove’s foreword, with its tag of “Anybody who says he disnae like football is a lyin’ bastard,” – a quote from the final story – to that final tale this book is an examination in prose of Scotland’s contradictory love affair with the Beautiful Game – an affair at times not beautiful and not a game. The tendency of Scots to see anything and everything through the filter of football is evident from the contents.

This paperback edition contains additions (by Brian Hennigan and Bernard McLaverty) to the original hardback contents. Each story’s title page is illustrated by photographs taken by Paul Thorburn of different sets of goalposts from round Scotland. Occasional double page photos, overlaid with quotations from the stories, intersperse the book.

As is usual for anthologies and might be expected from the range of contributors the stories are varied in tone and style. The relevance of football to some of them is a bit dubious, though.

The opener is The Thing About Brazil by Allan Spence. On a trip to Brazil, Andrew remembers his dad and their visits to Ibrox, takes in a Flamengo-Palmeiras game at the Maracanã and, later, has his own moment of football glory on Ipanema beach.
In A Belfast Memory by Bernard McLaverty a Belfast man remembers the time that “Charlie Tully called” and the discussion that ensued on the shameful demise of Belfast Celtic.
Linda Cracknell’s The Match is only incidentally about football. A woman is taking a holiday in the Carribean on her own since her husband wouldn’t miss a vital European match. (It could have been any obsession really but I suppose football is the most plausible.)
In This Is My Story, This Is My Song by Laura Hird some Hearts-supporting friends gather for the funeral of one of their number, killed in a van crash. Supporting Hearts is the biggest thing in the lives all of them.
Iain Maloney’s Football Scarves and Richard Kimble tells of a boy’s experience of his first match – a Cup Final – interspersed with his Dad’s reminiscences of how the ending of the TV show The Fugitive, gripping much of the nation at the time, was announced over the tannoy at a night game.
The Hand of God Squad by Gordon Legge is the tale of two (moderate) drinking pals, the hotels they drink in, the Englishman who first of all befriends them then joins in their trips away with the Tartan Army (complete with kilts.) All tied up with the sad end to the qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup.
In The Cherrypicker by Jim Carruthers the narrator’s grandfather was a Cherrypicker, so he is slightly disappointed both that no-one famous turned up at the old man’s funeral and at the absence of missives from Liverpool in his effects. Years later, on seeing Glenbuck, he cannot credit the team’s name.
Nae Cunt Said Anyhin by Andrew C Ferguson is narrated in a very broad Fife Scots. It is the story of Tam Johnston and the gift of sublime football talent the fairies passed on to him; a gift almost useless because Tam likes the drink too much (“George Best oan a budget”) and even though he gets to play for Scotland they’re “so shite even Tam cannae make a difference. Couldnae score on Loveboat.”
Billy Cornwall’s Jesus Saves has Wee Davy thrust into a game against older heavier boys, where he imagines himself as Kenny Dalglish.
Heatherstone’s Question by Des Dillon is another not really about football, even if two neighbours in Galloway do support different halves of the Old Firm. Rather, it is about neighbourliness, and reticence.
Alan Bissett’s A Minute’s Silence charts the friendship and rivalry between two boys that sours when they attend different schools and start to support different teams (you know the two.) About sectarianism and how it is not engrained, but learned.
In Denise Mina’s The Bigot a criminal has scheduled the divvy-up from a job for the day of an Old-Firm game. Again, the football content here is really incidental. Revenge, it seems, is a dish best served not only cold but well-planned.
Sufisticated Football by Suhayl Saadi has a man “lying in the cells at the dark bottom of the Old Partick Police Station” being visited by the ghost of Allegro Akbar, a celebrated football coach. Illuminated with words from Urdu and Arabic – ghosht = meat = the ball, pyar = love, and ishq = perfection (as in Zidane, Hampden, 15th May 2002) – illustrating the philosophy of football.
The Tomintoul Deliverance by Brian Hennigan is the humorous story of how Loch Muick triumphed over the ancient enemy Athletico Tomintoul – despite not having played them for years and a season spent losing heavily to the likes of Dynamo Fochabers and Sporting Kilwhinnie (not to mention Unsporting Kilwhinnie) – mainly through managerial exhortation by cliché. A flavour of the tone is given by the sentence, “It was at times reminiscent of the film Zulu, particularly when the Tomintoul attack set fire to the thatched roof of our goal.”
The Last Man in Scotland Who Doesn’t Like Football by Colin Clark tells the story of “Pasty” Hastie, who doesn’t like football so got a hard time at school. The affliction goes on to haunt his adult life.

Pedant’s corner:- non sequitar (sequitur,) sprung (sprang,) its (it’s,) Billy McNeil (Billy McNeill,) “Better tae have to hoopsthough eh?” (the hoops makes more sense,) Queens Park (Queen’s Park,) “Where’s the excitement I that?” (in that, surely?) Thursday through the Saturday (that “through” is USian usage,) what we what we, was was, students’s, allen key (Allan key,) “’And you’ll have you got yourselves kitted out?’” epitomy (epitome,) gets the heads shaved (get,) Robert Prosineski (that’s how it’s pronounced but it’s spelled Prosinecki,) a missing quotation mark, were (where,) alter x 2 (altar – both times,) a few slice of bread (slices,) one and other (one another,) wanes (weans,) Ranger’s (Rangers’,) sliver shelving units (silver?) ranger top (Rangers top,) sleak (sleek,) viscose (viscous,) threw (thrown,) soccer (soccer!!!!) miniscule (minuscule,) deosil (usually deasil,) snuck (sneaked,) nine items or less (ought to be fewer, of course, but it’s a straight quote from a supermarket sign,) a question mark after what wasn’t a question, lead (led.)

A Season With Verona by Tim Parks

Travels around Italy in search of illusion, national character and …. goals.

Secker and Warburg, 2002, 447 p.

A Season With Verona cover

Parks is an English novelist who has lived in Italy for many years. Long fallen under the influence of the Brigate Gialloblù (the Yellow-and-Blue Squad,) “ultras” who throng the Curva Sud of Verona’s Bentegodi stadium for home matches, he conceived of the idea of attending every game of the team’s 1999-2000 season, selling this to his wife on the basis he could write a book about it. The result, though, is not a book only about football and the experience of being a fan, but also an exploration of Italy, the strange divisions, attitudes, enmities and prejudices within that country.

Given that the team Parks is so devoted to is Hellas Verona, not one of Italian football’s superpowers, the book’s subtitle is a bit of a red herring. Goals (at least, Hellas goals) turn out to be in somewhat short supply. This is partly due to the loss of their previous manager, Cesare Prandelli, to a bigger club. His successor is not as accomplished.

As well as the Veronese dialect being derided in the rest of Italy, Hellas fans and Verona itself had at the time (and may still) an unenviable reputation, as racist. (As far as the football club is concerned the nearest British equivalent might be Millwall – “No-one likes us, we don’t care” – but that club’s profile is probably lower than Verona’s, its football history less illustrious. In the miraculous year of 1985, before Parks’s time as a fan, Verona actually won lo scudetto – imagine Millwall winning the English Premiership – but immediately after that incredible outcome the system of appointing referees in Serie A was changed.) A sub-theme throughout the book is the saga of a teacher in Verona who was the subject of an attack because he was a Jew. Most Veronese are solicitous and supportive of him but the national press and media weigh in with stereotyping of all Veronese as racist. The situation becomes ever more complicated when it is revealed that the man did not have the teaching qualifications he claimed, thus putting his job in danger. (But even this is turned against the Veronese.) Neither is any hospital report of the man’s injuries ever produced. The attack may not have occurred at all. However, Parks portrays the fans’ racism as more contrarian and reflexive than real, an assertion of defiance and distinctiveness. An afterword says that a black Colombian made his debut for Hellas two seasons later and was warmly welcomed by the Curva Sud. During the season covered the Verona fans encounters a certain amount of casual violence, both from opposition supporters and the police. (Veronese, being perceived as racist, are seen as fair game.)

The author’s novelistic background shows through at times. The chapters are structured with a fiction writer’s feel and the incidents detailed highlight the points he is making. All but a few chapters are tailed by the Giornata (results) and Classifica (league table) after the fixtures discussed within. Among his more general observations are that, “To do anything in Italy you don’t need to be capable of it. What you do need is a certificate. The document is crucial.” He adds, “There is no people more ready to imagine a conspiracy than the Italians.” Yet “everyone wants their team to win at all costs and everyone earnestly wishes the world to be fair.” Parks concurs with Leopardi who in a book published in 1828 stated that society in Italy is a “school for insult.” The description is even more applicable to football. While not sharing their enmities to local rivals Bergamo, Brescia and Vicenza, when Inter come to town Parks feels the indignation – familiar to fans of wee teams everywhere – of Hellas fans to those Veronese who have turned up to support Inter. “How can they do it?” Mixed in with this is the disparity in resources “the five reserves they” (Inter) “have on the bench are worth more than our whole twenty-five-strong squad put together.” On the iniquities of referees officiating in a match involving a big team at the Bentegodi, Parks says, “The more I think about football, the more I am convinced that injustice is an essential part of it,” adding that the fan of Verona, indeed the fan of a small team anywhere is lucky. “He gets it.” Also, “The truth is that whenever a provincial side come to Turin,” (to play Juventus) “they arrive expecting to be cheated. More than they would anywhere else.” (Welcome to Parkhead and Ibrox!)

The first game is a trial. Away to Bari, eight hundred and fifty kilometres down the Adriatic coast. Not as far as Lecce but bad enough. And held not on the usual Sunday of Serie A matches but as the anticipo at 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and thus the first match of the entire Serie A season. This arrangement is for pay television purposes. A second anticipo is played on a Saturday night and a posticipo on the Sunday evening. I don’t like the concept. Football games ought to be played at the traditional time (football’s soul has long since been sold out, in some cases far too cheaply, for filthy lucre) but I do like the word posticipo. In a circumstance which will be unsurprising to also-rans in other countries only the provinciali, not the big five of Juventus, Inter Milan, A C Milan, Lazio and Roma, are delegated to play on a Saturday afternoon. Parks’s journey to Bari on the Zanzibar bus (the book is dedicated to its denizens, the Zanzibar is the bar from which the supporters bus leaves) is a nightmare full of interruptions and replete with Italian expletives – if you didn’t know what vaffanculo means before reading this book it wouldn’t take you long to work it out – with Parks’s credibility at stake, travelling for hours on a clapped out vehicle stocked with initially suspicious diehards. The game, too, is a trial for the most part but Hellas salvage a draw. For the later game at Lecce Parks uses his projected book as a means to travel with the club. Unable to get there any other way he flies with the team and officials, staying at their hotel. The players turn out to be fairly sad individuals, almost like little boys lost. The game, too, is lost and Parks swears not to travel with the team again.

It is only more than halfway through the book, when the reality of a relegation struggle has become clear, that Parks mentions what he had hoped to avoid, something unthinkable. Verona has another football team, from the suburb of Chievo. Traditionally poorly supported – Parks characterises this as more or less a woman, two men and a dog (I paraphrase) – and habitual denizens of the lower leagues, they have not long been elevated to Serie B, and so are now allowed to play at the Bentegodi but are exemplary, with two black players and fans who don’t invite trouble. Worse still for Hellas fans, Chievo are on course for promotion. Hence Hellas faces the imminent loss both of Serie A status and that of top dog in Verona. It is here that Parks rails at the fact that, without television money – with Serie B and European games added to the schedule it means that there is football on Italian TV every day of the week – Chievo would not be able to afford the players who have brought them success.

While not being beyond personal considerations – he greets the pathetic performances that threaten the club’s status with the thought that “they are destroying my book” – Parks is good on the trials of being a fan. When Bologna score first in the (for Hellas, must-win) third last game of the season he observes, “Then I realised that although I thought I had already abandoned hope before the game, actually I hadn’t. I had pretended to despair, precisely to keep alive the tiniest hidden hope, flickering deep, deep in my breast. Now it was extinguished.” A reaction familiar to all fans who have been in that situation. Then Adailton, “the only Brazilian who can’t play football, as the fans like to say,” (these fans and Parks have obviously never witnessed Rafael Scheidt) scores a beauty. Verona go on to lead the game but almost throw the win away.

The season ends on a triumph of sorts. Five points behind with three games to go was a situation never before retrieved in Serie A. Yet Hellas still ended in a three-way tie for the last relegation place. In the complicated way Italian football approaches these things there can only be one pair of teams to play-off. Lecce came top of the calculation of the relevant results so Hellas had to confront Reggina (to whom they had lost at home in the normal season while drawing away.) That normal away game was played in Sicily, in Catania, as Reggina were being punished for crowd trouble. So after a 1-0 win at home, Parks travels for the first time to Reggia di Calabria for the final game. Only one plane can get him there, the team’s, which of course he had forsworn. Nevertheless he has to go. At 2-0 down an away goal means survival. Its achievement is succeeded by an excruciating period of Reggina pressure and an heroic display by Verona’s goalkeeper, Ferron. An orgy of violence towards the away team, officials and fans follows the final whistle.

I note that Parks describes Luca Toni – playing for the opposition – as spending the game falling over, seeking to win free kicks. I once commented on another blog that the spectacle of said player resembled a tree trying to play football; a comparison that blogger described as inspired.

Pedant’s corner:- having if off (it,) national Italian team (Parks’s sojourn in Italy is perhaps in evidence here, the usual order in English is Italian national team,) for convenience sake (convenience’s,) indignance (indignation,) Seishelles (Seychelles – though the misspelling may have been a reproduction of that of one of Parks’s students of English,) place kick (free kick,) that can effect the timing (affect,) sung (sang.)

Sepp Blatter

I still don’t quite know what to make of Sepp Blatter’s resignation.

It was only a few days after he’d secured his presidency for another term. Maybe there’s a lot to come out about his dealings behind the scenes. It would seem so.

But…. A thought occurred to me.

Is it a bit like John Major’s resignation? He resigned (as head of the Tory Party) but still managed to stay on if you recall.

And Blatter’s given himself about six months still in charge while the process of electing a successor takes place. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if he tried to stand again.

Whatever, I doubt that the next World Cup will be removed from Russia. There were good reasons why it should go there. (It was Europe’s turn and Russia hadn’t had it yet, among others.)

Qatar in 2022 is another matter. (But 2022 is Asia’s turn.)

In another point; to make things absolutely clear, if there is a rerun of the voting for 2018 or 2022, to avoid accusations of sour grapes, England ought not to bid and perhaps neither ought the US given it was that country’s initiative that has resulted in the arrest of FIFA’s executives.

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