Ink & A Stick

The ramblings of a man who should know better.

Changing Faces

“I’d put up with another 10 years of rubbish results just to see Spurs batter Arsenal tonight”.

January 2008 and it was the day of the Carling Cup semi-final, second leg. The pessimistic Spurs fan in me saw little way that Tottenham Hotspur could beat the oldest of enemies, ‘the scum’, to reach the final of the league cup. In almost 10 years Spurs had failed to beat Arsenal and the gloating from that end of the Seven Sisters road was too much to take. The constant jibes had fostered a real hatred of the Gunners within me and I was desperate for a chink of light, something to crow about.

I got what I wanted that night, Spurs did batter Arsenal  and crow I most certainly did. It made it all the sweeter that at the time I worked on Green Lanes in Haringey, slap bang in the middle of Gooner country. I worked with what felt like an entire building of Arsenal fans and I hated them. I didn’t just hate the fans, I hated everything connected with the club. The players and the bespectacled buffoon of a manager. If you’d have introduced me to the tea lady I’d have probably hated her too.

It is hard to say where this hatred came from. It was very real but why was it there? I’m not from Tottenham so it’s has never been based on regional pride. I can only assume that it was borne out of a misguided belief that this was how ‘real’ fan behaved. Stories on The Spurs Show podcast just reinforced these ideas. Fans who would hold their breath when on the tube and the doors opened at Arsenal station. People who wouldn’t spend money at Costa Coffee because they were part of the Whitbread group and a board member at Whitbread had an Arsenal season ticket. I loved all of these tales and bought into the idea with gusto.

It wasn’t just Arsenal that got my footballing ire pricked either. There were the none too insignificant spectres of Chelsea and West Ham looming over Spurs as well. Detesting them was also a badge of honour worn by all ‘proper’ fans. There exists, as a Spurs fan, a sliding scale of dislike. A hierarchy of hate if you will, and it goes like this. Spurs fans support any team playing Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham. This only changes when the three start to play each other and then it’s Chelsea over Arsenal and West Ham over Chelsea. I would say that I still basically adhere to this theory but something has definitely changed. I no longer ‘hate’ any of the three rivals.

It has been a gradual shift in my attitudes towards Tottenham’s nearest and, well, not quite so dearest. A large part of this is purely down to winning. The dislike of other teams is often directly linked to results achieved against them. Spurs’ performances against Arsenal and Chelsea have ceased to be an ever-expanding list of misery. Recent league outings against Arsene Wenger’s charges have generally been kind to Spurs of late whilst games against Chelsea are now real pick ’em affairs.

As with so many things recently, Twitter has been behind a lot of the changes in my footballing opinions. It has been a real education to learn that you can support your team just as well without resorting to behavioural extremes. One of the things I have grown to dislike about football in general is the amount of importance placed on abusing your team’s rivals. I regularly go to Oxford United games and regardless of the opponent, the cry of “stand up if you hate Swindon” is never far away. To my mind it’s a pretty redundant chant at any game, it’s no secret that Oxford United and Swindon Town are not the best of friends. Yelling “stand up if you’ve got more than three fingers” would generate a similar result. Surely the team would be better served by the fans getting behind the players they support.

Another strange personal trait was an obsession with Arsenal’s results. I’d get almost as much pleasure in their failures as I would in Spurs’ successes. At times it felt like I was more of an anti-Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham fan than a Spurs fan. It could be argued that all of this is part and parcel of supporting a football club but it has begun to seem like a strange way to go about things. Many Spurs fans were absolutely thrilled by Manchester United’s 8-2 annihilation of Arsenal but I was more concerned by the fact that Tottenham had just been hammered 5-1 at home by Manchester City earlier that day. To many it seemed to be a case of, “it doesn’t matter how much we lost by, look at that lot. 8-2!”.

In the past there hadn’t been room for even grudging respect of Arsenal. I now watch and marvel at the abilities of Robin Van Persie and Jack Wilshere. I still think Theo Walcott is a bit rubbish but I’d think that whoever I supported. I feel the same about Chelsea. I’ll always dislike John Terry but that’s more to do with him as a man than the shirt he wears. The ‘Fat Frank’ Lampard jokes are getting tiresome now, (they probably always were) and any team with Juan Mata playing in it is one I’d happily pay to watch.

I have grown to realise that you don’t need to be a complete zealot, foaming at the mouth to support your team. Validation does not have to come in the form of how much you hate another club. I cringe a little looking back at the ridiculous behaviour of a few years ago. The mantras I quoted and my attitude towards other people based on the club they chose to align themselves with were daft at best. I still passionately hope that Spurs win their derby games but the vitriol surrounding them in the past has dissipated, within me at least.

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Ciao Marco

The death of a celebrity affects people in different ways and displays of public grief have always left me slightly bemused. I assume that the reason for this is very simple, I have never felt particularly ‘connected’ to anyone well-known. People I admire greatly have passed away and I have felt little more than a pang of sympathy for the deceased’s family. When Ayrton Senna died in 1994 I was 15 years old and although I was stunned there wasn’t a sense of sadness. I suspect this was more to do with the fact that Roland Ratzenberger had died at the same race meeting and due to massive safety improvements in the preceding 10 years Formula One had become a much safer environment. It was a real shock that a sport I had naively regarded as almost bullet-proof had claimed two lives in such a short space of time.

The stunned feeling appeared again when I woke up on the 17th of October to discover that Dan Wheldon had been killed during an Indy race in Las Vegas. Again, I felt terrible for Wheldon’s family. he had left behind a wife and two young children and being a parent myself thoughts inevitably turned to how hard it would be to raise kids on your own in those circumstances. Being a British driver it was understandable that the media was full of stories about Wheldon. His peers were rightly splashed across the TV and newspapers paying tribute to the popular man from Buckinghamshire. For me it was a regrettable racing accident but the world kept turning, as callous as I am sure that may sound to some people.

With all this in mind then, it has become very hard to deal with my emotions concerning the death of young MotoGP rider, Marco Simoncelli last weekend at the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia. Simoncelli lost control of his bike and in the subsequent fall he was hit by two other riders, Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards. Simoncelli was pronounced dead within the hour, unable to recover from the injuries sustained. Another, it would seem, regrettable racing accident. If this was just another terrible day in the litany of motor racing tragedies why do I still feel such utter sadness when faced with pictures or tributes to Simoncelli?

By my own admission I am not an enormous MotoGP fan. I have watched a lot of races and I can tell from numbers or helmet designs who the top 5 or 6 riders are but to call myself an avid watcher would be patently untrue. In the last few years I have become friends with a few biker and as a result of this I have even more respect for the men who race these two-wheeled behemoths. The danger of the sport has been brought home to me in vivid detail over a beer in the pub with these friends. As a person who grew up surrounded by four-wheeled motor sport I almost took driver’s safety for granted as technology moved forward. The very act of riding a motorcycle means that the rider is in degrees of danger for large amounts of the of his or her time in the saddle and this is vastly increased when placed in a racing environment.

As my respect grew for the riders of MotoGP I began to take more notice of their personalities off the track. Casey Stoner loves a moan, Jorge Lorenzo knows how to celebrate a win properly and Marco Simoncelli? Well, he was just a stone-cold nutcase. Routinely criticised by other riders for being too dangerous on the track. Far too big to ride a race bike and a hairdo the likes of which we hadn’t seen in professional sport since the Brazilian World Cup squad of 1974, what a man he was.

I am not going to pretend I knew just how good he was but talking to those who know the sport inside out he was destined for great things. I had watched an interview with Marco after the Australian Grand Prix , a week before his death, where he had just finished in second place, his highest MotoGP result. It genuinely seemed that he was moving on to bigger and better things and I think this is where the root of my sadness lies, it was such a waste of an outrageous talent.

Any loss of life in these circumstances is tragic but when it happens to someone yet to fulfill their potential completely it is somehow harder to bear. The deaths of people like Senna and Wheldon are absolutely awful but the saving grace, if any, was that they has reached the pinnacle of their chosen sports with titles and big race wins. With Simoncelli we will never know just how good he could have been and for that reason, personally, I feel this loss enormously.

Haye We Go Again.

Apparently, one definition of madness is to repeat the same actions over and over whilst expecting different results. I found myself thinking about this as I read an auto-translated version of David Haye’s recent interview with German newspaper Die Welt this morning. David Haye, I’m sure you know the chap. He was the man who was going to knock out Wladimir Klitschko and then retire back in July.

I would imagine you are all aware that is not quite how the story panned out. Haye was by no means entirely embarrassed in the fight. He just singularly failed to live up to almost every pre-match boast he had made. The icing on the cake of that particular evening was the assertion from Haye that a broken little toe had cost him the fight. However, David isn’t the first fighter to make a himself look stupid and he won’t be the last. The trick with these situations is to make sure you learn from them and don’t let it happen again. Except, like Bill Murray waking up to find that Andie MacDowell still isn’t next to him, here we are again. Groundhog Day!

It would appear that Vitali Klitschko, (fresh from his late stoppage of Tomasz Adamek on Saturday) and David Haye are close to agreeing a fight. After Haye’s loss to Wladimir there seemed to be an immediate suggestion that the “definite” retirement would be put on hold. Bearing in mind that retirements in boxing are often seen as a mere sabbatical, the prospect of seeing ‘The Hayemaker’ back in the ring doesn’t come as an enormous surprise. Sadly, another thing that hasn’t shocked me today is the fact that Haye doesn’t seem at all chastened by his experience on that wet night in Hamburg back in July.

Haye describes last Saturday’s fight in which Klitschko beat Adamek, (like Haye, a former cruiserweight) as boring. I have no problem with that. I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my own seat either. Haye goes on to claim that a fight between him and Vitali would be more exciting. Really? The last time I was genuinely excited by a David Haye fight was over three years ago when he fought Enzo Maccarinelli. Fighting at heavyweight has robbed him of the fear factor he used to hold over boxers at cruiserweight. Monte Barrett knocked Haye down and since then he’s fought on the back foot. People might point to the Audley Harrison fight as evidence against this but we all know that bout was an utter farce and Harrison belonged nowhere near that ring. Wobbling Nikolai Valuev, whilst impressive, doesn’t make you a supreme knockout artist. In fact, it’s worth noting that despite being labelled a devastating puncher Haye has only ever knocked out three opponents. The south London boxer has stopped a lot of fighters but whilst he’s criticising Vitali for failing to knock out the likes of Adamek and Shannon Briggs Haye might like to cast a look over his own record.

In the interview David goes on to criticise Vitali’s choice of opponents. The same man who fought Audley Harrison and John Ruiz has the temerity to suggest that the older Klitschko sibling goes for easy opposition. The more I read of the interview the more I found myself getting annoyed but then I cast my mind back to an interview Haye did before the Wladimir fight with BBC 5 Live’s Sportsweek. At the time Haye was asked about the trash talking element of his promotions. His general response seemed to show a belief that all the great boxers did it and fighters who didn’t try to belittle their opponents got nowhere. I think it’s fair to say that many people’s choice for today’s pound for pound King, Manny Pacquiao might disagree.

It was suggested to me earlier that Haye is only behaving like this to secure and subsequently sell a fight with Vitali. While this may be true I am not sure it is entirely necessary. Whatever anyone thinks of David Haye he is still probably the third best heavyweight in world boxing today, the fight sells itself. If anything Haye is danger of putting people off. Trainer Bobby Rimmer remarked a while ago that David had been pulling the wool over people’s eyes and I would have to agree. First with the Harrison fight and then again with the Wladimir match up, shouting his mouth off, promising XYZ and then struggling to deliver half of X. Fans are getting tired of hearing it and a number of them remarked to me that they would be going against the habit of a lifetime and actively supporting a British fighter’s opponent should this bout happen.

Going back to the issue of selling the fight. A match between Haye and Vitali would sell out most arenas, promotion or not and assuming Sky Sports show the bout then pay-per-view figures are no longer an issue. Sky’s decision to suspend pay-per-view boxing broadcasts are almost certainly as a result of fighters like Haye not delivering PPV standard bouts and cards. All of this means that David could quite easily make this fight and then keep his head down and train. Personally I would love to see a British heavyweight world champion again and with his undoubted ability and career so far you would have to say that Haye probably does deserve it. The problem for me is that his mouth gets in the way and until that changes I’m afraid that I will always be hoping to see him eat his words.

Die Welt interview with David Haye.

This is a Google-translation of an interview with David Haye. It appeared this morning on the website of German newspaper Die Welt, (the orginal can be viewed here). I didn’t write any of this and am not claiming that I did in any way, I just wanted to share it. The original author is a journalist called Gunnar Meinhardt.

The World: Mr. Haye, you will have seen Vitali’s title defense?

David Haye: Of course, along with my trainer Adam Booth.

The World: And?

David Haye: I nearly went to sleep, because the fight was boring. The only exciting moment was the moment when Vitali suddenly in the eighth round on the ground.

The World: Was not that Klitschko has boxed convincing?

David Haye: Who saw this way, the old man wants to flatter. In fact, he looked very weak. He was slow, had no real concept and pumped like a bug. I saw nothing spectacular. Adamek was being tailored for Klitschko.

The World: What prompted you to for this assertion?

David Haye: Adamek got his head away not moved poorly and had no clout. Vitali has been clever, he always seeks out only dead victims. Opponents such as Shannon Briggs, the old, sick and übern mountain, or how Adamek to him because of his physical inferiority can not do anything. To shine against such types, this is no big deal.

The World: Harsh words, Mr. Haye. Why do you always have to blaspheme?

David Haye: I do not blaspheme, but telling you my opinion. And I think it’s an indictment of Vitali, if he can send the Briggs and Adamek not even right to the ground. The have even managed Steve Cunningham and Chad Dawson, who are not heavyweights. I had expected that Vitali makes two, three laps. I will still tell a, Vitali has a hard punch. This is ridiculous.

The World: The Vitali defeated opponents see very differently.

David Haye: You were also no serious challenger. It is also claimed that Wladimir has a deadly punch. This supposed best punch I’ve put away without what happened. These brothers are a bunch of fakes. I can assure you that Vitali beats hit me and certainly not around!

The World: So you’re saying that you would ask him?

David Haye: Yeah, I’m ready for him.

The World: So you are not – as announced – on her 31st Birthday on 13 October’s career end?

David Haye: I did indeed say that I at my 31st Birthday wishes to stop. But I never said that I would like to end with a defeat. If I had won against Vladimir, definitely would have been concluded. If Vitali is a coward but to surrender, I remain in my decision and I hear on 13 October definitively.

The World: And do you seriously believe, to have a chance against him?

David Haye: I hit him whacked I told him smash his chin when he holds out as provocative as the fight against Adamek. But I think Vitali will run away from me.

The World: You’re a loudmouth. They prophesied the same thing before the duel with Vladimir, and nothing has happened.

David Haye Wladimir is but also ran away when I was trying to beat. Or he clutched and pulled me to the ground. Unfortunately the referee had to go through all that was an impertinence. Vitali has indeed harder eggs, but also he is a scared rabbit.

The world: they are a genuine provocateur.

David Haye: Again, I tell you what I think. However, the good in a fight against Vitali would be that he tries not like his brother, to cling to and keep his opponent when it strikes hard. I guarantee: Vitali against it would be a much more exciting fight.

The world: they are but also how one nursed Adamek cruiserweight, much lighter and smaller than Vitali.

David Haye: Sure I can have physical handicaps, but unlike all the other punching me. I hit harder than the two brothers together. I am also much faster, more agile and much, much harder to hit.

The World: Vitali has already signaled that he was disrespectful to your behavior against the brothers have a special need to knock you. He said: “If Haye is lying unconscious on the floor can also be a broken toe no longer serve as an excuse.”

David Haye: Then he should report to my management and bagged the contract. He has the contact details. I’m waiting for him and urge him on: Vitali, introduce yourself, if you’re a man! I do not care where I box against him. I’m also on the moon. No fight in the heavyweight division will bring more publicity than the old Haye against Klitschko. I am the most popular heavyweights of the planet, and I can earn the most money.

The World: How long would you wait for Vitali’s commitment?

David Haye Wladimir wants to fight in December, we could, in February or March in the ring. That would be an ideal time. But still I can not imagine that Vitali has the courage. If you do, I guarantee to send him into retirement. He will fight and never again able to devote himself full time to politics.

The World: Have you any idea how you would promote the fight?

David Haye: This would require not a lot of words. I guess they know the saying: “You can not teach an old dog new tricks” (you can teach an old dog new tricks – dR). Vitali is an old dog that normally he belongs in the home for elderly Boxers.

The World: Have you ever been recovered from the defeat against Wladimir, who is also the world champion of the International Boxing Federation (IBF) and World Boxing Organization (WBO) is?

David Haye: Yeah, everything’s okay.

The World: Even your small right toe, which they had broken in training before the match with Vladimir?

David Haye: Also, the theme is history.

The World: What do you do now?

David Haye: I relax. I was just four weeks in Montego Bay in Jamaica, have spent much time there with Lennox Lewis. We’ve talked a lot about Wladimir and Vitali. Lennox has also given me tips on how I can beat Vitali.

The World: Has he seen Vitali’s fight?

David Haye: Yeah, and he had no other opinion than I do. He also said that Vitali is old and slow and only searches from opponents, who may not be dangerous. Lennox really want to see the fight between me and Vitali. When it comes to that, he is in my corner. He has promised me.

Nice to UFC you.

Glee, Water Polo, adults collecting stuffed toy animals. The list of things I don’t ‘get’ is an ever-expanding one. Until recently the sport of mixed martial arts held about as much interest for me as bog snorkelling. The octagon in which fights take place appeared to merely be a stage for two men wearing cycling shorts to try to strangle each other. This lack of interest has nothing to do with finding the violence abhorrent, far from it. I have been a boxing fan since the 80s and have no problem with watching two consenting adults trying to knock lumps out of each other. No, the truth was that I found MMA boring.

As with so many things these days it was Twitter that acted as the catalyst for viewing the sport in a different light. Micro-blogging has introduced me to a wider world of MMA and the UFC. The UFC appears to be the pinnacle of mixed martial arts, the best of the best if you like, (with less Chris Penn and Eric Roberts, sadly). Conversations with people whose opinions I respect led to taking more of an interest in what many refer to as the fastest growing sport on the planet.

One of the main MMA tub-thumpers I had encountered on Twitter was sports writer Simon Head. Simon writes for, among others, the Mirror’s MMA blog and was extremely helpful in pointing me in the right direction when it came to learning about the UFC. One of the first things he showed me was a montage that is updated and shown before every big UFC event. When I first saw this clip I realised that there was a lot more to the sport than grappling on the floor, Greco-Roman style and it really got the ball rolling. Watching a few old fights shown on Five late at night just reiterated the fact that I had probably got it wrong about MMA. When I finally got round to subscribing to ESPN, (the UK’s broadcaster for UFC events) I was very excited to find out that, (with unintentionally perfect timing) I would be able to watch UFC 134, live from Rio De Janeiro.

From watching UFC president Dana White’s video blog to listening to the excellent ESPN UFC podcast with Gareth A. Davies I had tried to fill in some of the many blanks in my knowledge. When the time came to get up at 1:45 that morning I felt I had a somewhat better understanding of what to expect.

As the night progressed what impressed me most was the boxing skills of the combatants involved. This was a result of a daft assumption on my part that as all fights ended up on the ground, (they don’t) the training given over to boxing was minimal. One of the biggest surprises of the night for me was the fight between Brendan ‘The Hybrid’ Schaub and Antonio ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira. I had been led to belive that Schaub’s biggest chance of victory was to stay off the floor and hope to land some of his renowned big punches. It took just over 3 minutes to prove this theory wrong. ‘Big Nog’ Nogueira, a man whose record shows a love of submission holds turned the tables on Schaub and knocked him bandy with a huge left hook. Despite being only a little over 2 years older than me Nogueira looks old enough to be my Dad and he’d out Schaub-ed Schaub.

A lot is made in the mainstream media of the brutality of MMA. The term cage-fighting is often used to, in my opinion, paint a more dangerous picture of the UFC and its fellow organisations than necessary. That said, there is one aspect of the fights that took some getting used to. In boxing when a fighter goes down his opponent is sent to a neutral corner . It came as a slight shock each time a fighter in Rio pounced immediately on a fallen foe. It is a very well refereed sport though and the phrase ‘intelligently defend yourself’ is one I have heard repeatedly. If the referee thinks you are not defending yourself properly the bout is stopped. Only once was I genuinely concerned over a fighter’s wellbeing and that was when Forrest Griffin was stopped early by Shogun Rua after having his head bounced off the canvas by repeated hammer fists. Happily, Griffin was soon on his feet and seemed to show no lasting damage.

On we went to the main event of the evening, Silva vs Okami. There has been plenty written about Anderson Silva by far more qualified people than me. The best compliment I can give the middleweight champion is that, in victory it looked as though the fight ended exactly when Silva chose it to end. There was a consummate control innate in all elite sports men and women and it was a real joy to watch him fight. It seemed the perfect way to end my first real experience of watching an MMA show.

So that was it. I had watched and thoroughly enjoyed mixed martial arts for the first time. My initial was thought was, yes, but they can’t all be this good though. Can they? The answer it would appear is yes, it can. Judicious match making allied to a seemingly real desire to provide the fans with entertainment. These are just some of the driving forces behind this sport. Boxing is too often concerned with the ‘main event’. They use a big fight as a crutch to load weak bills on to, assuming that fans won’t want to bother with the smaller fights anyway. The UFC is proof that you can have a stacked card and it takes absolutely nothing away from the headline bout. In an era where boxing is losing fans hand over fist it could learn a lesson from Dana White and the not so new kids on the block.

Another 36 Hours…..

……a tale of ‘A’ roads and reassessed ambitions.

From 10 am on Sunday to 10 pm on Monday my sporting life seemed to be a story of long running bad spells and teams in red. The revisiting of a lower league rivalry and a self-fulfilling Premier League prophecy. For 36 hours I would be slightly hypnotised by both sides of my own footballing coin. My first trip away with Oxford United and Tottenham Hotspur’s opening game of the league season.

Upon reading the League Two fixture list when it was released earlier in the summer I had blithely committed to joining a friend on Oxford United’s first trip to play Swindon Town since the 2000-01 season. I hadn’t really thought about the “derby of the A420” until I attended Oxford’s last match before big game, it was only then that I realised what a serious event this would be. Even earplugs would struggle to keep out the noise the made by anti-Swindon Town songs regularly bellowed at United’s Kassam Stadium but when I learnt that some fans would not be travelling due to fears over safety I did start to wonder what I had got involved in.

Luckily the game seemed to pass without any major off-field incidents, (other than Paolo Di Canio being sent to the stands). There was the usual name calling and questioning of parentage but beyond that it was far from the nastiest game I’ve ever been to. Our vantage point of the advertising hoardings behind one goal meant that it would be tough to give a coruscating blow-by-blow account of the game. I saw the net at the other end of the pitch ripple twice, (a good thing) in the first half and saw it not rippling, (also a good thing) in the second half. We were close enough to the touch-line for me to believe that Swindon striker Raffaele De Vita was actually eyeballing me when he screamed “f*** off!” at the Oxford fans following Town’s equaliser. Despite the post-match statistics proving me to be a buffoon it felt like we stood there for almost 5 hours watching wave after wave of Swindon attacks threaten to ruin our day. In the end it was Oxford United that missed the best second half chances but the team held on to win at the County Ground for the first time since Donny Osmond topped the charts with Young Love.

Oxford United weren’t the only team to be battling a long hoodoo in this early round of league games. My true footballing love, Tottenham Hotspur had the usual daunting trip to Old Trafford to look forward to. Unlike the Oxford game, if you like football and haven’t spent the last 24 hours under a rock there is a good chance that you’ll know how things played out between Spurs and Manchester United. We may have seen the beginnings of Alex Ferguson’s latest team reincarnation but it’s the issues surrounding Tottenham Hotspur Football club that left me with far more to think about.

Spurs haven’t won at Old Trafford since Arthur Rowe was a player and whilst this might be a slight exaggeration it feels as though it has been that long. Every season when this game happens I lose all hope. In recent memory there have been bad decisions, (the Pedro Mendes “goal”), contentious decisions, (the Gomes/Carrick penalty) and downright baffling decisions, (Nani’s goal last season) but in the majority of these games the rule of thumb is that Spurs generally roll over and take their beating and the latest meeting was no exception. Personally I think that last night put paid to the myth that Spurs have a strong squad. What they actually have is a lot of players and there’s a huge difference between the two but it all boils down to one thing, ambition. Where exactly do the board and the manager want the club to be?

In the past 16 months I have heard Harry Redknapp say, (about the same group of players) that Spurs could qualify for the Champions League, win the Premier League and then be lucky to finish in sixth place but that we as fans should be thankful for it. The frustrating thing is that I think he might have had a point. All of these remarks can be directly linked to a particular subject, the transfer dealings of the teams around Tottenham and the dealings of the club itself. With the exception of Arsenal, (which is a different can of worms altogether) all of the teams that are likely to be ahead of Spurs in the league have strengthened their squads significantly in the last 8 months while Tottenham have been left behind. It’s worth noting that the only attacking player of substance purchased by the club in two years, (despite its three frontline strikers managing just seventeen league goals between them last season) is Rafael Van der Vaart, a player that Redknapp laughingly told us he didn’t need but that the Dutchman was a gift from his chairman. All of this smacks of either blistering ignorance on the part of the people running the club, including Redknapp himself or a tacit admission that Spurs just can’t afford to challenge the top four. With no new stadium plans in place and a vocalised  desire from the board not to break the club’s wage structure perhaps it’s time we Spurs fans finally admitted that the upper echelons of the Premier League are a fast fading dream.

This article first appeared here on 24.08.2011

My Favourite Goal

This piece first appeared on 14.01.2001 as part of GhostGoal’s My Favourite Goal series.

“What team do you support?”

“Erm, Tottenham?”

It’s 1987, I’m nine years old and I’ve just moved to a new school. Oh, and I’m not particularly interested in football.

It’s a defence mechanism innate in most kids. Say what you think people like to hear and they’ll generally leave you alone. The kid asking me had the shortest hair I’d ever seen and it was a time when the word Skinhead still provoked a fearful reaction from  a lot of people. If I’d known that the boy in question was a bit of a wet blanket and ate beetroot sandwiches for lunch every day, (and I do mean EVERY day) rather than being a fully paid up member of the NF, (not as common as you might think in rural Northants) then I might not have committed myself but I did and it stuck. Tottenham ’til I die.

Supporting Spurs has given me a number of things over the years. Sore feet from queueing at White Hart Lane station, a footballing inferiority complex and a few moments of utter, unspeakable delight. And my favourite goal.

When asked ‘what’s your favourite goal?’ a few possibilities come up. Nelinho’s 1978 curler against Italy in the World Cup. I’d never before seen anyone swerve a ball like that when I first saw it on video. I was quite a fan of Mark Hughes’ tight finish in the ’91 CWC Final against Barcelona too but when it comes to my favourite there is only one.

“Is Gascoigne going to have a crack? He is you know. Oh, I say! Brilliant!”

For an awful lot of Spurs fans of my age this will be their favourite goal.  Too young to appreciate Chivers’ rocket against Wolves in the UEFA Cup Final and Villa’s slalom past Manchester City at Wembley. Gascoigne’s ’91 FA Cup semi-final thunderbolt free kick into the top corner against Arsenal was ‘our’ moment.

I didn’t actually see the goal on the day it happened. Some childhood indiscretion on my part meant that I wasn’t allowed to watch television on the day of the game and whilst I got very excited listening to it on the radio it only became clear how good that goal was when I got to see it a few days later.

One of the things that makes it my favourite is what the goal represents as much as the quality of the strike itself. It was Spurs distilled into a split second. The genius of Gascoigne is almost a logical progression from Arthur Rowe’s push and run team, Bill Nicholson’s double winners, the teams that won 2 UEFA cups. This is what Spurs did and to do it against the then boring, boring Arsenal made it all the sweeter. The drab mediocrity of the years that followed served only to heighten the enjoyment of watching moments like that. I still get a buzz when I watch the clip now. It’s tinged with a little sadness when you look at how life turned out for Gascoigne but rightly or wrongly for a lot of us he’ll be that prodigiously talented young man sprinting away in delight forever.

Schoolboys Own stuff indeed.

Football Express: EPL Predictions

An edited version of this was used as part of  a prediction panel piece for The Football Express on 12.08.2011

 

Predictions for the 2011/12 English Premier League season.

Top 4.

1. Manchester United

2. Manchester City

3. Chelsea

4. Liverpool

It is as much a case of ‘same old, same old’ as it is ‘all change’ in my top four for this season. I was impressed at how easily Ashley Young appears to have settled in at United, looking good against Manchester City in the Community Shield. David De Gea’s inauspicious start aside I think that other teams will have to pull off something special to replace Ferguson’s charges at the top of the Premier League tree.

In acquiring  Sergio Aguero Manchester City have leapfrogged Chelsea as the best of the rest. Regardless of whether or not Tevez stays I am of the opinion that Chelsea’s squad has hit a bit of a wall and at the time of writing the lack of fresh faces challenging for first team places will be a hinderance.

The “Battle For FOURTH!!!!” is Sky Sport’s ace in the hole if one team looks like tearing off with the title trophy. As a Spurs fan it pains me to say it but I can’t see Tottenham being too involved. It is going to be a straight fight between Arsenal and Liverpool again, looking at how the respective teams have strengthened, (or not in Arsenal’s case) there would appear to be only one winner, (I can hear the howls of derision already). Luis Suarez has been a favourite of mine for years and I have no doubt that he will become a huge star of the Premier League. If Liverpool can just keep Steven Gerrard on the treatment table and out of the first team for long enough I think fourth place is theirs at a canter.

Relegation.

My three teams to be relegated are, in no particular order, Wigan Athletic, Norwich City and Newcastle United. Wigan have come close to relegation in the last few seasons and were the second lowest goal scorers in the league last term. The loss of Charles N’Zogbia to Aston Villa and Tom Cleverley’s return to Manchester United won’t help that stat and survival this season will be a step too far.

As much respect for Paul Lambert as I have I can’t help but think Norwich are in trouble. The bottom line is that the players at his disposal are just not good enough to keep them up. I think they’ll give a few teams a good scare but ultimately they will go straight back down to the Championship.

Selling Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll, releasing Joey Barton and fluttering their eyelashes at Damien Comolli over the talents of Jose Enrique, Newcastle United are in danger of losing their four best players of the last two seasons. It could all end in tears at SJP, well, more tears anyway.

Surprise Package.

I’m not sure that we get surprise packages in the Premier League these days as we’re always looking for teams to do what Hull City managed in their first season back in the top flight. Blackpool came very close to surviving last season and I think Swansea will survive with reasonable comfort, entertaining plenty on their way.

Under Achievers.

If the figures are to be believed then QPR’s owners are regularly diving into swimming pools of cash in homage to Scrooge McDuck. The likelihood of any of this cash being spent on exciting new players seems slim. The Hoops will stay up but it’s because there are three teams worse than them in league. Don’t expect Warnock’s finest to be kicking in the doors of the Champions League party any time soon.

Three To Watch.

Gareth Bale: It could be described as a make or break season for Bale. He has had a good 18 months with some amazing displays but he’s also become the butt of almost every joke in Premier League football. No, he’s not the best player in the world. he’s not even the best player in the Tottenham team. Great displays in the Champions League were often followed up by anonymous league performances. If he really is the name on everyone’s transfer wish list, now is the time to prove it.

Scott Sinclair: At least four Chelsea managers appear to have had reservations about Sinclair. In his 5 years at Chelsea he was loaned out to no fewer than 6 clubs. Last season he finally got some stability in his career signing permanently with Swansea. In the Swans’ promotion run he scored 19 goals including a hat-trick in the play-off final. Not too shabby for the player who in the words of that old cliché, is not an out-and-out striker. Is this the  season he proves those Blue doubters wrong?

Charles N’Zogbia: N’Zogbia has long had a reputation for being a bit of a pain in the crack. Seemingly always on the hunt for a move to a club ‘worthy of his talents’. If Alex McLeish can get it right at Villa Park then the team should be challenging for a European place. With the added weight of replacing the likes of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing it will be interesting to see how much of a part N’Zogbia plays in that.

Player you wouldn’t miss if he left these shores.

Peter Crouch: I don’t like Crouch. I don’t mean this personally. Alleged taxi indiscretions aside he seems like a perfectly pleasant man. He says “y’know” a little too much for my taste but he has the air of an all round good egg. As soon as he sets foot on that pitch though, my heart sinks. The strange thing is he’s not a particularly bad player either. Crouch scored some important goals during his time at Spurs. The one at Eastlands where the ball smacked him in the face and went in to seal the top four spot. The one at the San Siro against Milan we he appeared to kcik the ground first before slicing the ball into the bottom corner. The fact that he only scored four league goals last season is a minor problem. As is the way Spurs play when he’s on the pitch, diagonal ball into the box anyone? I just can’t stand watching him play the game and for that reason I’ve pushed the passenger seat as far back as it will go and set the Sat Nav for Bratislava. Jump in, Crouchy!

Favourite WAG.

I love Rafael Van Der Vaart but I love his wife Sylvie even more. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgUpLh6lLJc

Hakuna Matata for The Football Express

This article first appeared here on 16.08.2011 

People often speak about the defining moments of their lives. The events that would be in super-slo-mo, high-definition, 3D magnificence were you to put together a highlight reel of your time on earth. I have had plenty in my life. The first time I met my wife, the birth of our daughter, the time my Mum found out I’d been smoking cannabis. You know, the usual suspects. However, when I consider how big a part football plays in my life there isn’t one particular moment where it all fell into place. There wasn’t a goal that I was mesmerised by or a game that I was taken to that really cemented my love of the sport. My obsession with football was a more gradual affair and it owes a huge debt of gratitude to VHS and one particular video, 20 Golden Years Of The World Cup.

Italia ’90 was the first World Cup I really cared about. It was the first time I had watched football regularly and it had given me a potent sense of excitement about the coming season. The team I supported, Tottenham, had Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne coming back from Italy as undoubted stars of the competition and I could not wait for it all to get going again. Except I had to.

Back when pre-season tours consisted of playing Norwegian non-league teams and the summer sports pages were full of cricket there wasn’t a lot to satisfy the starving football fan. As a distraction I had my birthday which was always in the first week of the summer holidays and this meant I had birthday money, (I have never really got over knowing that birthday cards these days will never contain cash). This also happened to coincide with the first year in which my family owned a video recorder, it only seemed right therefore that I should start what I hoped would become a burgeoning collection of movie masterpieces. Now, you might think that I took my time and pored over every possibility but memory serves me correctly I dashed into the  shop and grabbed the first football video I could lay my clammy little hands on, I had World Cup fever and this had World Cup in the title, bingo!

Of all the rash purchases I have ever made, (and it won’t surprise you to learn that there’s been a few) this may well have been the best ever but it took me a while to appreciate it. As children we always judged how good a video was by the quality of the pictures on the back and this only had one, Pele. I knew Pele had played football but I had never seen footage of him doing it properly. At the time it was accepted football fact in this country that Pele was the best player ever and all I had ever seen of him was the marvellously bad, Escape To Victory and the just plain bad, Hotshot. Neither film was a ringing endorsement of his fabled talents. Let’s face it, if Russell Osman could get into the same team as him how good could he really be? I told my rather suspicious Mum that it was just what I wanted but I, like her, had my doubts.

The video was about 90 minutes long, (I’m convinced all videos were this long) and the format was to have highlights of every world cup from 1966 up to and including 1986. It was narrated by Bobby Charlton who on reflection sounded like he’d been at the temazepam in the sound booth. It started off with colour footage of the 1966 final. We’ve all seen it now but back then I had only heard about it. I was robbed of Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary but having heard it continuously all summer as a sample in New Order’s World In Motion that wasn’t such a bad thing. I knew of the goal line controversy and now knew about “the Russian linesman” too, (for the record I paused the video and it didn’t look over the line to me).

From then on things were different. It was old footage of games in far away countries with strange pitch markings. It was Bobby telling me that Teofilo Cubillas of Peru always liked to play with his socks down. It was Bobby having a bit of moan about being substituted against West Germany, and in 1970 it was Pele. As strong as 15 Mick Harford’s and boots made of velvet. “What audacity” whispers Bobby as Edson tries to score from the halfway line. There were others though, Rivelino and his “sweet left foot”, (and monstrous ‘tache). Tostao and obviously Carlos Alberto. Even aged 12 I could see that his goal in the final was a beauty. That pass from Pele, ooof.

The video went through the 70s tournaments and I decided that Johan Cruyff was my favourite player. We had just seen Gascoigne bamboozle Ronald Koeman and Richard Witschge with a Cruyff turn in the World Cup and I’d seen the originator, what a hero. Arie Haan was also there, scoring seemingly endless amounts of long-range thunderbolts. I watched as the Germans won the trophy, feeling bad for Holland. Feeling bad for the Dutch again four years later but being in awe of the ticker tape storm and Mario Kempes at the Estadio Monumental.

The video moved into the 80s and I was able to see the Marco Tardelli goal leading to the emotional celebration that had been on my tv every night as part of the BBC’s opening World Cup credits. I remember being shocked by Harald Schumacher’s assault on Patrick Battiston and also being so amazed by Paolo Rossi that I would pretend to be him in the garden, recreating his hat-trick against Brazil.

If I am honest I had got bored by the time they showed the 1986 competition, watching football usually made me just want to go out and play it. I did eventually watch it again though, and again, and again. What it taught me was that football wasn’t just about Division 1 or England in ’66. It taught me about greats of the game like Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Falcao. It gave me a love of Dutch football which persists to this day. The video was also perhaps my first realisation that the rest of the world probably do it better than England too. If playing Sensible World Of Soccer turned me into a football obsessive it’s only because 20 Golden Years Of The World Cup had turned my head in the first place.

Once a Yellow, sort of.

Each of us has a friend that ask us to do things we’re perhaps not entirely happy about. It starts at school, “tell her I fancy her. It’ll look stupid if I do it”. It continues into our teens, “you buy the cigarettes. You look old enough”. With me it carried on into my thirties, “d’you fancy coming to the football this weekend?”.

I love football and while living in London I was fortunate enough to be able to go and watch the team I support, Tottenham Hotspur, with reasonable regularity. The seats weren’t great and as anyone who has been there can testify, White Hart Lane can be a miserable place to get to on occasion but over the years I have seen some fantastic players in N17, some of them were even in Spurs shirts. When we left the capital for rural Oxfordshire in 2009 it became too much of a commitment to both finances and family time to travel to North London. I am sure there are some that will claim this makes me typical of the modern ‘supporter’, not prepared to go to games and they’re probably right. Armchair fan sums me up perfectly.

Taking all of this into consideration you would think that the opportunity to go to a game that didn’t involve a six-hour round trip would be something I’d jump at. When it’s non-league football and Altrincham are in town though you do have to wonder. I am a football snob, (as well as an armchair fan. I’m hanging myself out to dry a little here). I had no desire to watch to teams of cloggers bash lumps out of each other whilst being charged £17.50 for the privilege. However when two of your closest friends are Oxford Utd fans who have not only helped you move house but then also built mountains of flat pack furniture for you too it’s easy to think that taking a few hours out to watch their beloved Yellows is the least you can do.

Up until this point I had never been to an Oxford United game. I had never been to the Manor Ground and wasn’t particularly aware of the club’s history. I knew about Aldridge, Houghton and the Milk Cup win. I still laughed like a grubby-minded schoolboy when I saw old Oxford shirts with the ‘Wang’ sponsorship. The only players I knew from the intervening years were Joey Beauchamp and Matt Elliott and that was a testament to their endeavours after leaving United, (or in Beauchamp’s case a lack thereof). It was even a surprise to find out that the Kassam Stadium only had three stands.

My first thoughts as the game started, (other than “you get and good view of the car park here”) were that it wasn’t so different from going to Spurs after all. Once again I found myself in a stand, (the south) that seemed to dislike singing but being especially keen on moaning about the quality of football on display. It was just like being in the east stand, (lower) at White Hart Lane. The game was far better than I had ignorantly assumed it would be and when Damian Batt smashed in the winner, from what I now remember as almost on the halfway line but was probably a little closer to goal, I was very pleased.

I enjoyed it so much that went back, and back, and back again. I went to five or six games that season and I was in the crowd at Wembley when Alfie Potter was among the scorers that took Oxford United back into the football league.

Going to Oxford games is obviously a different experience than you would expect at a Premier League game, in many ways it’s better although the food is still reassuringly overpriced. As a disabled fan I find it very easy to get to my seat at the Kassam, (if the lift is working) and I can park at the stadium which makes a huge difference. Along with these very selfish points I’ve met some great people who I now see away from games. I have even been to an Oxford United wedding.

A strange thing happened recently when I bumped into another Oxford fan at a local beer festival. I found myself referring to OUFC as ‘we’. I was slightly shocked and then it dawned on me that I was almost as excited by Oxford’s upcoming season as I was about Spurs’. I’m all set for the first away league game at Swindon since the 2000-2001 season and I am constantly doing the maths to see if I can afford to splash out on a season ticket, (not this year). Trips to the Kassam have gone from being a good excuse to spend time with friends to being a chance to get behind my local football league team. I will always be a Spurs fan but I am starting to feel like an Oxford United supporter.

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