Archives » England


Today is the 500th anniversary of the most disastrous encounter between the forces of Scotland and England in history. (Bigger even than the 9-3 reverse at Wembley only 50 years ago. But that was a mere football match.)

On the 9th Sep 1513 14,000 men died on a battlefield in Northumbria. 10,000 of those were Scots – including most of the Scottish nobility and even the King, James IV, himself, the last British king to die in battle. The Battle of Flodden Field was at one and the same time the biggest clash of arms between the two countries plus it was the last mediæval and first modern battle on British soil. Never again was the longbow to be a major weapon, never before had artillery been employed.

My memories of reading about this were that it was an unnecessary tragedy as James had only invaded Northumbria as a sop to the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France. England’s king, Henry VIII had gone to war with France and Louis XII had appealed to the Scots king. One of the peculiarities of this situation is that James’s wife was Henry’s sister, Margaret. She had apparently asked him merely to “break a lance” to honour his obligations. I doubt that she thought he would not return.

Reading the BBC History magazine a couple of weeks ago it turns out that Henry VIII’s father, Henry VII, aware of his tenuous right to the English throne had foregone the English claim to Scotland and signed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace. Henry VIII had no such inhibitions – or else was eager to bolster his own position – and had recently reasserted England’s overlordship over Scotland. James, then, in effect, had no option but to stand up to Henry.

His initial efforts were successful, taking three castles in short order. He then set up a strong fortified position on Flodden Hill and awaited the English forces. The English commander, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, apparently accepted battle on James’s chosen ground. However, being out of favour with Henry, he was desperate for a victory and instead of attacking at Flodden Hill, he made a flanking manœuvre, interposing his army between the Scots and the border. James was furious at this unchivalric behaviour and had to make a quick redeployment to Branxton Hill instead. Perhaps it was this anger that led to his lack of judgement in the battle. Wikipedia has the details of this dispute over the proposed battleground slightly differently.

Flodden Memorial from path
Flodden Memorial from path.

Flodden Memorial

The plaque reads, “Flodden 1513. To the Brave of Both Nations.”

The Scots artillery was heavier but more cumbersome and so less effective but at the beginning of the battle the Scots left completely overran the English right (if only!) and retired from the battlefield expecting the rest of the army to achieve overall victory. In the centre, however, things did not go so well. From their position on Branxton Hill the Scots could not see the boggy ground in the declivity between the lines.

Flodden Memorial. View to Branxton Hill

Flodden Memorial. View to Branxton Hill. From English start line.

Flodden Memorial from Scottish line

Flodden Memorial from Scottish line. Memorial is just left of centre here.

The Scottish Start Line at Flodden
The Scottish start line at Flodden.

The Scots infantry, armed with long pikes, whose efficiency had been proved in European battles, soon lost the essential formation necessary for success as they slipped and slid on the uncertain footing. The pikes also could not be anchored securely due to the underground conditions so were useless defensively. The English infantry, armed with much shorter billhooks, waded in to bloody effect. Dead bodies and blood soon made the conditions even worse.

Flodden Information Board

To their credit, as one of the information boards on the Battlefield Trail says, the Scots did not cut and run, but bravely fought on.

The memorial, built in 1910, is inscribed to the brave of both nations. I have been told the only other battle memorial to acknowledge both armies is at Quebec but cannot confirm this.

There is an information centre – in a red telephone booth – in Branxton village. It claims to be the smallest information centre in the world.

Flodden Information  Centre

James had been making his court and kingdom one of the most cultured in Europe, and Scots into a major European language. That process came to an abrupt end on his death.

The result of the battle at Flodden, the subsequent decline of Scotland’s influence, is probably the main reason why this post is being written in English rather than Scots.

The irony is that, despite the result of the battle, it was not Henry VIII’s descendants that would unify the crowns of Scotland and England and be monarchs of the UK but rather James’s, through his marriage to Margaret, their son James V and granddaughter Mary Queen of Scots, down to her son James VI and I.

The disaster is said to have inspired the traditional Scottish lament for the fallen, Floo’ers o’ the Forest,” sung here as The Flowers o’ the Forest by Isla St Clair.

Serial Delusion South of the Border

In Thursday’s Guardian, Owen Gibson (in an article titled “Dyke sees remedy for Hodgson’s headaches” on page 42 of the print edition) said, “With the odd exception (1990, 1996, 2004) the [England] national side has consistently underperformed since 1966.”

Oh dear. Not again.

Would a more realistic way to look at this statistic not be to suggest that actually in those four years cited (out of a total of 24 opportunities) that the England team actually surpassed itself and otherwise played for the most part as might be expected?

It would only be on those occasions that England failed to qualify for a major championship finals that the team could be said to have “underperformed.”

(On this note it can now be seen that Scotland consistently overperformed on all those occasions between 1970 and 1998 when reaching the finals competition was achieved.)

England 3-2 Scotland Versus Writers’ Bloc

International Friendly, Wembley Stadium, 14/8/13

I didn’t see this as I was attending Sterne und Autobahnen* last night (see last post but one.)

By all accounts there were signs of promise.

I’d like to think, though, that in a European Championship or World Cup qualifier away from home we would not twice lose a lead. This is Scotland however: it will most certainly happen.

*The Writers’ Bloc gig went well, John Lemke’s and Poppy Ackroyd’s music – thoroughly modern for the most part, not my usual listening – was good and expertly performed, the story to accompany it entertained and was well read. The good lady and I may even have got a taste for tripping to Edinburgh for an evening.

The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper by Jonathan Wilson

Orion, 2012, 351 p

If football is symbolic, if the ball is a substitute sun requiring to be buried (in the goal) to ensure fertility, what then are we to make of the one player in the team whose primary object is to prevent that desirable consummation? Such is the question with which Wilson starts his history of the goalkeeper, who in this context can be seen as the outsider, an anti-footballer.

While not denying the goalkeeper’s essential difference I immediately started thinking, what about the stopper centre half, the holding midfielder, the midfield destroyer? Aren’t their roles equally anti-football in that sense? Of course these players may advance into the opponents’ half, even score the odd goal or two, but the goalkeeper generally isn’t expected/permitted even to do that. Except what, then, to make of the Paraguayan great, Jose Luis Chilavert, who took penalties and free-kicks and scored 62 goals, 8 of them for Paraguay and all while playing as a goalkeeper? (Brazil’s Rogério Ceni has since overtaken Chilavert as the highest scoring keeper.) The South American attitude to goalkeepers has tended to be less restrictive, though. In Europe keepers generally only charge upfield in desperate circumstances.

In any case Wilson’s title partly goes against the thrust of the history. When football was first codified it started with all players able to handle the ball in certain circumstances. That dispensation quickly became restricted to the designated one, who was detached from the team – and made to stand out by virtue of wearing a different coloured jersey/shirt. A gradual process of goalkeepers playing beyond the penalty area – the change of rules in 1912 which forbade handling outside the box (up till then they had been allowed to anywhere in their own half) delayed this process – by intervening with their feet or initiating attacks has reduced this difference. Arguably the keeper’s reintegration into the team was finally more or less institutionalised by the back pass rule. (Even before that, though, the custodian was not totally estranged, was a vital component of retaining possession. I remember reading elsewhere that Liverpool’s long domination of the European Cup was predicated on passing the ball back to Bruce Grobbelaar as much as possible during away legs. The sweeper-keeper had evolved even prior to this, though.) In Jose Luis Chilavert’s case the reintegration of keeper with team was surely at its most complete.

Wilson mentions that the first ‘Prince of Goalkeepers’ was Dumbarton’s James McAulay. Another Sons keeper to be mentioned in the text is Joshua Wilkinson, whose father was convinced his death from peritonitis in 1921 was due to a blow he’d received in a game against Rangers the previous Saturday.

In the very early days it had been almost open season on goalkeepers. The famous William ‘Fatty’ Foulke – reputedly 28st (179 kilograms) when he played for Chelsea – often took his revenge on physical forwards, turning them upside down and depositing them on their heads. Despite the obvious dangers – Celtic’s John Thomson (to whom a section of Kirkcaldy’s newly refurbished museum is dedicated – he came from nearby Cardenden – there was also a tribute to him there before the modernisation) received an accidental but fatal knee to the head in 1931 also against Rangers; Sunderland’s Jim Thorpe died in 1936 after several blows in a physical game in 1936 prompted a reccurence of a diabetic condition – it was not until after Bert Trautman’s broken neck and several other injuries to keepers in FA Cup finals in the 1950s, though, that British goalkeepers began to receive extended protection from referees.

Goalkeeping is not, in the end, a simple business. He/she is not necessarily only a shot stopper; there is a difference between the reactive keeper and the proactive. The former expects to make saves (spectacular or mundane) the latter’s best game is the one in which she/he has no saves to make at all, because the way he/she has organised the defence ensures, in an ideal world, that no danger occurs.

There are even national differences in approach. Both Brazilian and Italian defences tend to play deeply and so breed reactive keepers. In other countries a higher line is adopted, a goalkeeper’s play has to be more attuned to that. In Russia, Soviet Russia in particular, goalkeepers have been the subject of a reverence that borders on love.

Africa is represented here by the Cameroonians Tommy Nkono (who inspired Gianluigi Buffon) and Joseph-Antoine Bell, the Spanish, German, Italian, English, Brazilian, Scottish and US traditions are covered in detail. From Asia only Ali Al-Habsi gets a mention and that in passing. Oceanian custodians escape Wilson’s purview completely. Maybe no notable keepers have as yet been bred there.

So many great goalkeepers seem to have had unfortunate debuts, on the end of drubbings of various sorts. What distinguishes them all is that they are liable to be remembered, their careers defined, not for their great performances but for one, or – in the case of David Seaman – two mistakes. (My abiding memory of Ray Clemence is of him allowing a soft one from Kenny Dalglish to evade him in a Scotland-England game at Hampden. Proof if any were needed that there is no national tendency to persistently outstanding goalkeeping.) Poor Moacyr Barbosa of Brazil was forever blighted by conceding the winning goal in the 1950 World Cup final. In 1970 a woman in a shop said to her young son, “Look! There’s the man who made all Brazil cry.” Barbosa himself later complained that in Brazil, “the maximum sentence is 30 years. My imprisonment has been for 50.” That loss to Uruguay was perhaps, though, the single most traumatic moment in Brazil’s history as a nation. It was only founded in 1889 and has never fought a war.* Brazilians apparently are not really football fans. It is winning they like.

Wilson makes the point that the existence of a highly proficient one or two goalkeepers from one country at one time is not evidence of strength in depth, nor any guarantee of continued excellence. The apparent decline of English goalkeeping is a case in point.

The author certainly knows his football history – there is even a digression into the treatments of the sport in literature and film, most of which lean heavily on the goalkeeper; a further nice touch is that the book’s back cover is decorated with a “1” – and he thinks deeply about the game. Having read the book I’ll observe goalkeeping in a different light.

One final note. Even if a book is about football it might be thought a touch insensitive to describe the Spanish Civil War as “perhaps the clásico to end them all” – even more insensitive when Wilson observes that Real Madrid didn’t become Franco’s team till the 1940s.

*Edited to add. I have since found out that this is only true of the Brazilian Republic and not of the Empire which preceded it.


I hear former Cabinet Minister Jack Straw in response to yesterday’s report on the Hillsborough disaster has referred to the culture of impunity in the police under the Thatcher government, a culture encouraged as they wanted the police to be a partisan force. Norman Tebbit – that government’s “semi-house-trained polecat” (in Michael Foot‘s phrase) – has responded to Straw’s remarks by calling them very, very silly.

Straw seems to have touched a nerve there don’t you think? Tebbit’s is hardly a measured comment. It’s also a deliberate attempt to minimise the effect of Straw’s charge – which has a great deal of substance.

To anyone who, like me, lived in a mining area in the 1980s it was obvious that the police force was partisan. Not only did stories of police officers brandishing banknotes at striking miners through the windows of police vans abound, I was several times prevented from going about my lawful business by a policeman peremptorily directing me back the way I had come. And this was nowhere near an actual coal mine, merely on roads that coal carrying lorries might be intending to use.

It was equally obvious that the then government wanted the police on side. One of their first acts was to ensure that the police got a large pay rise (while the rest of the public services were to endure cuts or freezes.)

And Thatcher herself not only saw the miners as an enemy, she saw football supporters in that light too, or if not an enemy, certainly as undesirables.

Is it any wonder the Yorkshire Police thought that they could get away with distorting the truth of Hillsborough? Football fans, especially in England, more especially from Liverpool, were at the time treated with contempt.

Far from Straw’s remarks being very, very silly, it is Tebbit’s which deserve that label.

Euro 2012

I’ve not posted about Euro 2012 yet because I’ve not seen many whole games.

I did catch all of the England – Ukraine game last night, though. If Ukraine had had a striker they’d have won this. England rode their luck and not just with the ball over the line incident.

I take issue with the commmentators over that. In real time I couldn’t tell if the ball was over the line or not. Even with the benefit of the replay using the along the line view I couldn’t tell that the whole ball had crossed the line when John Terry kicked it out. Neither could the fifth official be sure. And he has to be sure to give the goal. It was only when Terry was stripped from the picture and the frame was frozen that I could tell – and how was I to know what other manipulation may have been done to the image? The line official didn’t have that luxury.

Still, roll on goal line technology.

It must be said Uefa haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory over the Niklas Bendtner fine and ban for ambush marketing vivs-a-vis racist chanting and inappropriate banners.

As to possible winners; who knows?

Spain look get-at-able at the back. If it weren’t for Iker Casillas they would have been going home early: both Italy and Croatia would have beaten them. They also seem to have developed this novel way of trying to win football games. It involves not trying to score goals. (To be fair Dumbarton have been using that system for donkey’s years; but not deliberately.)

Against Croatia the Italians did that Italian thing of taking a lead and trying to hold it. The only thing is their defence isn’t good enough these days to sustain it. Had they gone for the second they might have saved themselves a fraught third game. They looked good going forward against Spain though.

Greece? Not likely, but we’ve thought that before.

Germany look impressive and Mario Gomez has morphed from being the German Luca Toni and suddenly found goal scoring form in a tournament.

Czech Republic? I doubt they’ll have enough to beat Portugal who were too fragile at the back against Denmark. But do the Portuguese have enough striking options beyond Ronaldo to get to the final?

France were shown up against Sweden and must play Spain.

England are teed up to lose to a Mario Balotelli goal. They have exceeded their usual Euro performance in getting to the quarter-final, after all.

At this stage it looks like the Germans.

Not Or

A useful little word has been languishing of late, disappearing even.

Maybe you can spot its omission/replacement in the following sentence I came across in Tuesday’s guardian. (That lower case g is still really, really annoying, by the way.)

“Stalwarts are noticeable by their absence: there is no John Terry, perhaps conveniently, or Rio Ferdinand in the ranks.”

Since Rio Ferdinand was not in the England squad for the game concerned, that “or” ought, of course, to be “nor.”

I have noticed frequently of late many lists of negative choices/options which have “or” inserted between them. I picked the above quote only as the most recent.

If a choice or option following a negative is also “not” then “nor” is more appropriate than “or.”

The negative is not or, it is nor.

Goodbye Dolly

Due to being at the game on Saturday and a family night out the same evening I more or less missed the sad news of the death of Basil D’Oliveira.

It’s not given to many sporstmen to affect materially the social organisation of their native (or any other) country – even inadvertently – but that is what Basil D’Oliviera did.

I remember him as a composed batsman, an elegant stroke maker, but it is his contribution to the unwinding of the apartheid regime in South Africa that will be more commented on. There had been protests against that system before but it was the refusal of the then South African government to countenance his membership of an MCC touring party with the certainty that the “coloured” D’Oliveira would have played in Test matches in the country of his birth – albeit for England – that crystallised for many the iniquity of apartheid and its eventual downfall through various sporting boycotts and isolation. For D’Oliviera seemed the epitome of the cricketing ideal, sportsmanlike and dignified on the field, and his banning by the regime an act of extreme petty spitefulness.

His actual age may have been older than many sources quote as he may have given the impression he was younger than he was in order to be chosen to play for England. His wiki entry quotes a source for this.

Basil Lewis D’Oliveira: 4/10/1931-19/11/2011. So it goes.

Inverting The Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson

The History of Football Tactics, Orion, 2008, 356p.

This book does exactly what it sets out to, describing the evolution of football tactics from their formless beginnings when everybody on the pitch, apart from the goalkeeper, dribbled towards the opponents’€™ goal with team mates ‘€œbacking up’€ in case the ball was lost, through the invention of passing (or, as it was delightfully phrased, combination play; I like that, let’€™s bring it back) in Scotland, the first real formation of 2-3-5 – one of whose pioneers was my beloved Dumbarton – mentioned on page 23 but not, alas, in the index – in winning their sole Scottish Cup in 1800 and long time ago, 1883 to be precise: its gradual stalemating till the offside law was changed in the 1920s to allow only two defenders between ball and goal line which in turn led to the withdrawal of the centre half into the back line of a 3-2-5 and the ‘€œclassic’€ three defender, two half back, two inside forward, plus centre forward line-up of the W-M or W-W. The later adaptations of this formation (in some cases, as in Great Britain, very much later) via the diagonal, through the deep lying centre forward, 4-2-4, 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 3-5-2, by which time the pyramid of the book’€™s title had been inverted, leading on to 4-5-1, even 4-6-0, plus the variations of all of these and the pressing game, are given their place and their innovators due recognition.

In particular the histories of football in various countries, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Austria, Hungary, the USSR, the Netherlands, England, even a foray into the Scandinavian experience, and the life histories of the various coaches concerned, are admirably laid out as is the tension between attack and defence, creativity and negativity, craft and effort. Through it all the importance of system is a given. A well-organised and drilled side will always beat a disorganised one, or one following too rigid a previous template, provided the system is understood and adhered to.

The tendency for any innovations to be imitated at first mainly in a defensive sense is noted and in passing the notions of Charles Reep and Charles Hughes of direct football being particularly effective is knocked on the head, even on statistical grounds. In some cases it can be, as can any system, but against good players who can keep possession directness will fall down.

Whether football’s evolution has ended is a moot point but in the modern world with global TV coverage and worldwide scouting it is unlikely any team will be able to spring a truly revolutionary tactical surprise. But then again before that offside law alteration there had been little or no tactical change for around thirty years. In Britain, the W-M then held sway for another forty or so.

But the centre half disappeared as a half back, wingers disappeared, full backs became wing backs, wing halves and inside forwards turned into central defenders or midfielders, who evolved into holding players or playmakers; and the playmaker has all but disappeared. The centre forward may go the same way. (I would say that, arguably, with Barcelona, he already has. Messi is not a centre forward, Villa and Pedro tend not to play up the middle.)

In modern football flexibility within a system is a key ingredient, and fluidity. Modern players at the top level are no longer specialists in the way they were. Everyone is an attacker and defender at the same time. (However some will always remain more gifted and more general than others. At the level I watch football the demarcation of roles is still pronounced. I doubt that will change soon.) Football is actually a game played with space – or denying it – and not really with the ball. But, as Barcelona demonstrate, possession, keeping it and regaining it, certainly helps.

The book has occasional infelicities of the sprung for sprang type and a few typos but for all those interested in football and how it came to be the way it is this is a wonderful, informative and illuminating read. I thank my younger son for lending it to me.

Germany 0-1 Spain

World Cup Semi-Final: Durban Stadium, Durban, 7/7/10

Again not a classic.

Where were the Germans who swept aside England and Argentina? I can recall them having only the one chance; which fell to the wrong K, Kroos not Klose. Apart from that they were never given much of a chance to counterattack by a Spanish side who pressed them high up the park and didn’t allow them time on the ball.

So the Spanish 1-0 juggernaut rolls on. Three results in a row squeezed out now, three one-nils out of five wins in total. Yet Spain seemed to have less of an aversion to shooting in this game – even if most of their efforts went past the post.

There’ll be a new name on the Cup on Sunday. But neither of them has set the tournament alight.

It’ll also be the first time a European side has won a World Cup outside Europe. Previously only Brazil have won outside their own continent (if you count Argentina’s win in Mexico as being in the Americas.)

free hit counter script