Saturday, March 31, 2007

Footballers: Old Romantics at Heart

After Ian Pierce snatched Fulham's late equaliser against Portsmouth earlier today, Soccer Saturday sage Jeff Stelling opined on how the journey-man centre back's intervention on behalf of the Cottagers would have spoiled Harry Redknapp's fifth anniversary as Portsmouth manager - sidelining in this post-nuptial calculation Our 'Arry's "brief sojourn" (Jeff's words) over the road at Southampton.

Now, I'm no marital guidance councillor, despite having read my fair share of Dear Miriams, but I'd wager a Robert or two that spending the best part of a year lodging apart from your loved-one - not only with another partner, but the bitterest enemy of your current missus - is rarely termed in the business a 'sojourn'.

Whatever Relate's best advice is for couples dealing with an affair, referring to said infidelity in the same manner as one would perhaps describe a trip to Provence, or possibly a spell in a Swiss sanatorium, is probably not it. But in Stelling's blithe air-brushing of Redknapp's less than salubrious extra-marital dalliances, there is a salutary lesson to be learned for us lovers of joga bonito.

Yes, when it comes to affairs of the heart, football fans know that it is better to forgive and forget. A star player's youthful concupiscence is often overlooked once his errant career move(s) leads to that moment of recognition; i.e. his one true love was who he was with in the first place. This revelatory clarity was known to the ancient Greeks as anagnorisis; but may perhaps be better understood in modern day footballing parlance as the knowledge of 'never-bloody-having-it-so-good'.

Robbie Fowler, revered in the Kop end as 'God', did his best fallen deity impression whilst embarking upon a passage of peripatetic poaching around England's northern climes - but no sooner did Rafa Benitez realise that an ailing thirty-something goal-hanger who could barely run was just what his strikeforce needed, than Anfield opened its arms wide for another passionate embrace with its former beau. Doubtless the obituaries will describe Fowler as a one-club man.

Like star-crossed lovers, certain players/managers are inseparably entwined with their club, and even a bit of hanky-panky on the side cannot (and indeed must not) shake the convictions of the faithful. The footballing public is often done a disservice in descriptions that lean heavily toward the binge-drinking, lairy-chanting, couldn't-set-off-a-firework-in-a-match-factory variety, but clearly the unstinting knowledge that some relationships are just meant to be displays no small degree of classical learning. Tristan and Iseult is perhaps the best analogue for our modern day 'When Harry met Pompey' tear-jerker, with both hero and heroine marrying other partners in spite of their eternal bond. The fact that they were buried side-by-side should not be mistaken for the looming threat of relegation here, as going down is usually only a problem in unsuccessful liaisons.

Similarly, when Clinton Morrison scuttled back to Selhurst Park after three somewhat barren years with Birmingham, the Palace support immediately forgave him for scoring with someone else (perhaps because largely he didn't). Graham Taylor, surely a man only a mother could truly love, seems to be a beacon for polygamous enduring affection, with both Watford and Aston Villa eager to welcome ol' turnip 'ead back for another roll in the hay. One would not be surprised were the Lilywhites to fall for Sol Campbell's charms once again, despite the ritual cutting up of the wardrobe, throwing out of cherished photo albums, and burning of crudely constructed effigies that followed his (admittedly somewhat brazen) move across the block to Arsenal. Hate is, after all, the flip side on the coin of love.

So, far be it from me to correct the learned utterances of Stelling. My initial suspicion that he was merely searching for a schmaltzy soundbite, and didn't mind trampling roughshod over history to get it, was on reflection a touch disingenuous. Clearly, despite the superficial trappings which adorn the contemporary kickabout, a soft-centred goo still resides beneath the sickly exterior. And next time I have to sing 'You're not fit to wear the shirt', it'll be with the sweet flush of affection warming my insides. That or a meat pasty, of course.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Platitudinous World of Fat Frank

Fingers crossed. That seems to be about as deep as Frank Lampard's tactical philosophy goes. Following the kind of no-frills performance that gives competency a bad name (there is, after all no shame in being competent, as long as that's all one aspires to be), Pobre Frank, he of the post-World Cup wounded pride, decided that the best way to get the fans back on side, and really show his commitment to the England cause, was to was to roll out a few of the old shibboleths.

It was like wandering into a fully-stocked candy shop of footballing clich├ęs. "I'll have a pound from the 'we've got to keep our heads up' jar please, oh, and a handful of 'hopefully things will start to go our way', thanks..." This self-serving junk is the stock in trade of many a sportsman, but after the umpteenth pitiful performance from a man supposedly locked in a till-the-death tussle with Steven Gerrard - the only man currently worth the lion on the shirt - for one of two central midfield slots, it really begins to stick in the craw.

On Saturday Lampard again appeared to go about his business as if merely hovering around the final third of the pitch was indication enough of his ability. He may have picked up the runner-up gong to Ronaldinho in the 2005 World Player of the Year award by pinging in twenty yard pot-shots against whichever worthies happened to be caught in Chelsea's opulent maw week-in-week-out, but as a good few years in the England team have demonstrated, that does not an international player necessarily make. Not a clear-the-decks midfield dynamo, a la Roy Keane or latterly Owen Hargreaves, nor a puppeteer, like Cristiano Ronaldo or Zidane, Lampard seems to get by on a fairly quotidian range of delights. He is not known for his Beckhamesque passing - sure he can knock neat one-twos, but so can just about every player in the Premiership - while his aerial threat is certainly not manifest for someone who stands 6'3'' (barring, perhaps, his decent nod in the opening fixture of Euro 2004 against France). Okay, Lamps has been known to lamp the odd scorcher, but his strike rate in this field of endeavour is not always flattering, viz. World Cup 2006 (over twenty shots: no goals).

Against the doughty but limited Israelis, England's best chance, created by Gerrard, was frittered away by Lampy Jnr, his feet stumbling to get the ball under control as goalkeeper Dudu Aoute smothered with ease. When opportunity knocked again in the second half, Lampard's header wide could better be described as a deflection. The debate about whether Lampard and Gerrard can play together in the centre seems to have become one of how to fit Gerrard in without hurting Fat Frank's feelings, and even plonked out on the wing Stevie G outshone his erstwhile sidekick. Surely it wouldn't have taken much of a leap in strategic thought to have removed Lampard, brought Gerrard inside, and put Aaron Lennon back out on the right where he belongs. It needn't have mattered who was introduced on the left; even the largely unambitious Stuart Downing's presence would have restored the balance. The compromise that has seen both McClaren and Sven fudge the question must surely be jettisoned.

But then, it's understandable that the England coach is in a quandary when even the venerable Al Hansen professes a desire to keep having a bash at solving the problem (is that the sound of fingers crossing again). If Hansen needs a list of alternatives, perhaps Joey Barton can help draw one up for him...

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Allrounder On Tour

I've been drafted into another line-up by the good men who run Third Umpire. For my Essex CCC 2007 preview, just follow the hyperlink road...


Sunday, March 11, 2007

Cutting the (French) mustard

Juxtapose, for a second, England's performance of two weeks ago in Dublin, against today's versus France. To heap opprobrium on England for their deficiencies in the Ireland match does an injustice to the levels of skill shown by their opponents at a wet and windy Croke Park, but if there were few sparks of life in that starkly stuttering performance, the corpse was well and truly reanimated to a rousing backdrop of 'Swing Low' this afternoon.

While I felt that there were signs of a willingness to try something new in the defeat to the Irish, with the big men in green marauding up front, and O'Gara pulling England this way and that with his kicking, there was little opportunity to evaluate whether the rose had any chance of blooming again soon or not. But from Toby Flood's early (and successful) chip and chase, through some of David Strettle's quicksilver footwork and George Chuter(!)'s backhanded offload in open play, right the way to Sean Geraghty's pinwheeling mid-tackle offload, minutes after entering the fray, there was an invigorating sense of 'he who dares wins' about England's play against France.

That there were so many errors in the game (even Brian Moore blanched at some of the skill levels on display, old quick-fingered virtuoso that he once was...) perhaps provided the best indicator that England were playing off the cuff, giving it some air - although Josh Lewsey took that mandate a little too far when he launched a pass so misguided it would have provoked guffaws at a colts match. For all of Nick Easter's impressive yardage, his two attempted 'hikes' from the back of the scrum came off badly, while there were some awful periods of turnover ping-pong in the first half; though this admittedly relied in part on some gracious return gestures in the shambles stakes by the French. Yet, it has become increasingly clear that 15 muscular hominids crunching into each other, phase after phase, does not only make for a dour spectacle, but is also less likely to bring results than it once was. Going long, as NFL Quarterbacks have it, helps to stretch teams, and quick offloads, cut-out passes, and high-speed switches all exist on the fine line between success and failure.

The most heartening aspects of England's victory - and boy, were they joyous - were the contributions of the two young stand-offs, Flood and Geraghty, who both played as if the legend of Jonny Wilkinson had never been written, let alone has a few chapters left to run. When Ashton picked his first squad as head coach, I voiced the opinion that while the fly halves of Newcastle and London Irish respectively may one day inhabit the same empyrean sphere that Jonny and Daniel Carter rule largely unchallenged, they were surely too callow for that day to come any time soon. Well, it's too early for superlatives, clearly, but Flood exuded supreme confidence in his decision making, while Geraghty made his presence felt like an electric heater dropped into a bath, all sparks and heat, slicing through the French midfield like so much Gallic butter. The only aberrations (if they were such) can have been Flood's two missed penalties, which, had they been scored, would have pushed England's total towards a (probably undeserved) rout.

So, plenty to be cheery about, from a fixture that loomed almost as menacingly as the Irish did. With a Wales scorned up next, some lessons in consistency and handling will need to be learned in training, without attenuating the free-flowing ideals that infused the best of England's moments today. I don't know about you, but I fancy munching on some Welsh rarebit this Saturday...

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