Friday, 20 November 2015

Vive La France, Vive Jonah

There's no such thing as a friendly international. It used to be the case. Nowadays they are always 'feeling out' exercises that by and large leave England supporters disarmed by futile optimism. Tuesday night at Wembley had none of that, unless you actually look at England's performance.

Two neat goals. A young side with a bit of pep about it. Dele Alli looking less of a whim and more of a winner. That was an irrelevance. The main thing was that the game was being played at all.

First of all, it's hard to imagine respect and empathy better demonstrated by a sporting crowd than the pre-match proceedings at Wembley. It was solemn, hugely dignified (not least by the French players who, reluctantly in some cases I'm sure, put on their kits and put in a shift in the most onerous of circumstances); it was not indulgent, there was a footy match to be played after all, but neither was it without passion - I belted out the Marseillaise myself from the comfort of a pub stool and I wasn't alone.

But Christ Almighty, Allah Be Praised and Atheists Shrug In Disbelief, it has been a shitty old week. Let's make that clear. So don't expect too much of the funny here.

I have always had a problem with people who say that sport and politics shouldn't mix. Well, especially in matters of international sport, they always bloody well do. Occasionally this brings out the worst in us and Sun headline writers, but often it brings out the best.

Anyone who thinks that Nelson Mandela handing Francois Pienaar the Rugby World Cup trophy in 1995 wasn't of huge political significance is an idiot. Or two black men clenching their fists on a podium, supported by a white man who only recently has had his bravery acknowledged - Or the treatment of Basil D'Oliveira by the MCC.

Yes, it's a shame when the Olympic Games becomes a political football. (Sepp Blatter could make a fortune out of Political Football couldn't he? Hey, but let's not have a pop at the poor man, he's had a minor nervous breakdown and it's hard to sleep with all those rogue payments crumpling up your mattress.) But sport is political.

So similarly, but more solemnly, this harmless international fixture became a bold and emotional statement about what unites people, rather than what divides them. The tricolour on the Wembley Arch spoke volumes, as did the minute's silence while rivals came together around the centre circle.

That's what sport does - unifies, rather than separates. It's why it's so bloody infuriating that the men running it are so waist-deep in the sewage of their own corruption, and utterly unconnected from the passions of those that watch and practise it (except, possibly, in a ruthless exploitative way). If the likes of Platini and Beckenbauer, men upraised by the splendour of football and their place in it, have seen fit to grub around like hyenas in a carcass for the last five or so years I think we might as well all give up.

France of course weren't exactly at the top of their game. Conclusions need not be drawn form the result. But, what with more horrendous news from Mali today, these gatherings take on huge significance. There have been many more courageous acts in the last seven days, but nevertheless those French workers simply going back to work was impressive. Football has never seemed so important to the lives of decent citizens.

There have been other less momentous stories from the week's sport but one that should and has been properly marked is the very early death of Jonah Lomu. Me, I didn't care too much for rugby union. Not in England anyway. It was and still is the province of the posh lad at play. Its rules are murky, its occasional glimpses of wonder soon disintegrate under a pile of heaving steaming flesh, like a darting kingfisher suddenly crushed beneath collapsing cattle.

I couldn't help identifying more with the Wales team, peopled as it was by working men from grittty backgrounds. Plus they were way better than the lilywhite Englanders. But there weren't too many charismatic blokes around - Serge Blanco maybe.

Lomu blew a hole in all that partisanship. Here was a bloke who rewrote the rules. Your wingers were whip thin and swift, shimmiers and sidesteppers. Forwards were massive and slow. If your backs were fast-running streams your front five were glaciers, hard to stop but easy to catch up with..

Step forward Jonah, a wardrobe fixed with an outboard motor. Fast enough to go round you, big enough to go over you, strong enough to simply straight-arm you into the stand. And a lovely bloke. It's hard to remember quite how unbelievable he was until you look back at the clips of Lomu at the World Cup.

Occasionally there are sportsmen and women who outgrow the narrow boundaries of their sport for reasons of brilliance and sometimes outspokenness too - Muhammad Ali springs immediately to mind - or simply a certain unique genius that reinvents the sport they play. I'd suggest here is where Lomu sits, alongside current giants Federer, LeBron James, Messi, and of course Stewart Downing.

The idea that this behemoth could have been brought down so soon by an ailment he struggled with all his life makes me feel a little bit humbler. Lomu wasn't one to complain. We should celebrate him, too.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Spurs On The Up!

Confession time. This might come as something of a shock to many of few. It certainly shocks me. Here it is: I’ve always had something of a soft spot for Tottenham Hotspur. What, the laughably unsuccessful neighbour of the not quite so laughingly unsuccessful Gunners? (Okay, 2 FA Cups makes that very hollow.) Yes. Them. What the hell has North London got to do with a boy raised on steel and smog?

Well let me put this in context. First of all there was a brief time in the very early 70’s when Spurs were the last team to win the Double. Arsenal did it too in ’71 when Charlie George belted in an extra time screamer at Wembley but at the time the Double was a rare beast indeed, like an albatross in golf, or a decent cross from Shaun Wright-Phillips.
That 1961 double-winning team was captained by Danny Blanchflower, a man who turned down Eamonn Andrews on This Is Your Life. A hero of our age in other words. In the 70’s they won nowt as far as I can remember but David Coleman used to love shouting ‘Chivers… 1-0!’ on Match of the Day and they had a bit of that swagger about them.
A few years later and they were parading two members of the victorious Argentine World Cup winning squad. Osvaldo Ardiles was one of them. God it was exotic! Like opening your curtains and finding a flamingo trotting about in your water feature (I don’t have a water feature by the way but I hear North London is full of them). Bobby Robson managed a similar trick at Ipswich with the majestically spindly Dutch duo of Muhren and Thijssen. Ardiles spent that World Cup dancing about the Argie midfield as if he held the ball on a gossamer thread attached to his big toe.
Joining him at Spurs was a suspiciously elegant genius called Glenn Hoddle – one of those too talented Englishmen who, far from being celebrated for the nigh-on supernatural capabilities of his feet, was merely decried for not tracking back enough. (“So what if he can hit a seventy-yard pass onto Tony Galvin’s instep, can he outmuscle Claudio Gentile? Nah, I thought not. Poof!”)
With Steve Archibald and Garth Crooks forming a surprisingly sharp spearhead – Crooksy looks and sounds a lot blunter these days – this was the team to watch. It lacked pragmatism but more than made up for that with good old-fashioned flair. In essence they were a Cup team – which is football-speak for ’11 Fancy Dans who don’t like it much when it gets cold’.
From amongst the swirls of and spumes of Teesside, this seemed like glamour writ large. There they were in their spotless white shirts (apart from Steve Perryman who was the only bloke who liked a tackle in the whole team), the cockerel crowing cockily on their breasts, a bunch of lads playing continental footy the like of which we’d not really seen before. This was pre-Wenger, pre-Juninho… Spurs have always been a little bit bling, what with your Gazzas and Waddles and Ginolas.
There’s been some lowly and frequent hiatuses – Christian Gross wasn’t a name that promised much, indeed it sounds more like a couple of adjectives you might use when describing the American Republican Party, and Juande Ramos proved a Juan-day wonder, picking up a cup and then leaving Tottenham rock-bottom.
It’s hard to believe that Daniel Levy has been a wholly beneficial force at the club. His policy of managerial appointments has too often resembled Graham Norton’s red chair. But the current occupant of the hot seat (and if his seat’s hot then the one at Leeds United must be a bloody inferno)  Mauricio Pocchetino may just be lugging the club beyond its traditional position as Not Quite As Good As It Thinks It is.

Obviously Spurs were once just a botulism-infested lasagne away from Champions League glory – well, qualification anyway – and this may be the year they get there. Chelsea’s continued difficulties offer the opportunity to someone to get a top four spot. 

Of course, Chelsea are helped in their cause when the opposition centre-half stinks. I believe Diego Costa. He didn’t spend nearly enough time in the opposition penalty area cos old Stinky Shawcross was there. And NOT because Chelsea can’t create anything much at the mo unless it’s a fluky own goal or a Willian free-kick. Seriously though, anyone who’s worn a football shirt for more than ten minutes knows they bloody stink of their own accord. At least that’s my excuse.

So can Spurs clamber higher? Well possibly. Citeh should really win it at a canter but much depends on the tweaks and twinges of Aguero who seems to pull up more often than a medieval drawbridge. Arsenal have their injury concerns too. If you’re English and wearing a first team Gunners’ kit the stretcher-bearers are virtually following you round the pitch.
Leicester can’t possibly keep this up. Yes, I know it’d be nice. But it won’t happen. And Man U – well as a spectacle right now it’s like Crossroads - unwatchable and yet somehow always on. Spurs just need Kane to keep firing, Son to get fit again and Eriksson to maintain some brilliance for more than the odd half-hour and there’s a real chance for them.

So there… with the dizzying dribbling of Ossie and Ginola addling my nostalgia-ridden brain I’m going to say it. Spurs will do it this season. They’ll win the title…
…. of runners-up to Man City.


Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Hardy Vardy*

All strikers get on a roll. Even Darren Bent. Hell even Paul Mariner, a man who looked like a featherless goose and often played like one, managed a fine run of goalscoring for England once. Last night Wayne Rooney got on the scoresheet for Manchester United and equalled Denis Law's total for the club. Despite the fact that Wazza increasingly looks like a concrete-booted version of his teenage self, we might have to start acknowledging that his record speaks for itself.

But Jamie Vardy is a case apart. I think we've all played against a Vardy. This lad stalks across your ploughed field of a school pitch. Not a scrap of fat on him, possibly whiffs of the Silk Cut he just toked behind the hedge, and he's already spouting off about how these are nowt much to look at.

The whistle blows and he's off like a ferret, scooting over the furrows, elbows and knees in a geometric blur. He's nagging the back four, leaving his foot in, a one-man bundle of thorns. He's backing his blade-edged bones into the centre-halves, spinning and leaving their galumphing strides in his wake like a streamlined trout swimming through the legs of a twenty-stone fly-fisherman,

But obviously the lad's in the side for his pace, his nuisance value, his chippiness. He's Robbie Savage with a sensible haircut and a turn of speed. And you might have thought that except he's just waltzed round the keeper and slid in his third goal of the morning, having dinked him earlier and scuffed in a side-footer before that.

If this sort of lad gets anywhere in modern football then by the time he's nineteen someone's come along and knocked the edges off him, buffed him up, and made him fit for purpose. That is unless he falls through the cracks and ends up plying his humble trade in non-league footy. Then somehow the rougher, ruder parts stay unrefined.

Of course, Vardy's passage through non-league somewhat mirrors his staunchest advocate Ian Wright. Wrighty, currently hoping a pair of outsized Harry Potter specs might encourage you to believe that his enthusiastic burblings are laced with wisdom, sees a kindred spirit in Vardy. And to be fair Wrighty knows.

There's a bit of the attack dog in both, a relentlessness to their pursuit of vulnerable old centre-halves. Neither seem to know when to stop running. Both seem to be driven by the injustice of a premature dismissal from the realms of professional football.

Vardy hopped around from Halifax to Fleetwood, scoring goals for fun it seemed, until Leicester scooped him up for a record non-league fee. Wright schlepped around with Greenwich Borough and had a fortnight in jug before a Palace scout sought him out.

Wright thinks Vardy should be in the England squad permanently, which is difficult for some of us to contemplate. Theoretically there are riches available to Hodgson upfront - Kane, Sturridge, Sterling, Welbeck, Walcott - all of them swaggering away with proper elite football teams that get to play big matches all the time...

Except (1) half of them are injured almost perpetually and (2) what does Jamie lack in comparison? And (3) no I didn't mention Rooney and maybe that's cos he's not worth mentioning right now. Indeed Rooney is barely a year older than Vardy and yet the Leicester forward possesses much of what the England captain appears to have lost in the last couple of years: pace, passion, stamina, desire...

A bit ago I posted a blog with my England squad on it. Vardy was conspicuously absent. And I suppose it depends, such is the fickle way with us footy fans, and I don't mean this tantrically, on how long he can keep it up. And how he gets on when he's up against the likes of France and Germany.

And whether he can keep his gob shut in a casino of a Saturday night. At least he's apologised though eh? Unlike, say, former England captains who are struggling at club level at the moment and won't take advice from Welsh pundits.

So yes, Vardy on the bench at the very least. And give him a run-out down the middle rather that stalking the flanks. Let's see whether the flinty Yorkie has what it takes. And if he fails, he'll keep on bloody well trying anyway.

*Out of respect for the dignity of his personal conduct this season, this blog contains no reference to the manager and arch apologist of Chelsea Football Club, Jose Mourinho. And if you're disappointed with that, don't blame me. Blame everyone - fuck it - anyone else.