Category Archives: Football

The Beauty of Balotelli at Sportswriters.org

I am not meant to be blogging this weekend.  I am meant to be somewhere in Oxfordshire, sequestered from the real world and spending time meditating on the purpose, the power and the peace available to the human race.  As it turned out, I got sick and had to postpone until the New Year.  It’s ok, because sometimes you are needed in the real world.

I wrote a piece about Balotelli back in the summer during Euro 2012 and it gained a notable mention and has been published here at  www.sportswriter.org.uk which is nice.

I was pleased to see Balotelli nullified City’s match against Dortmund earlier this week, with the papers remarking on his sangfroid.   That’s  a new and rather pleasing development in his demeanour.  I wonder how long he will keep it up as the season wears on…

Balotelli against Dortmund’s goal keeper

Why I believe in Frankel, but not Chelsea

Frankel pulled me back a little from the brink yesterday. I don’t mind saying I shed a tear or two, not when the race was won, but a little way into that wide verdant straight; at the point when Frankel indicated he was ready to go on from his pacemaker, Bullet Train. It seemed to me as if the horse was saying, with a slight nod of the head, to the man on board, Tom Queally, ‘Come on mate, let’s go.’ And they did. And I thought to myself, ‘Fuck me, it’s Pegasus’ and he doesn’t even know it, he just is.

That’s why I believe in Frankel, because he will do his best, regardless. He won’t fall out with the owner, the trainer, the lad, or even the jockey – he’ll just put his head down and get on with it, in his own remarkable, mythical style. One day, perhaps, Frankel won’t win. I don’t want to ever see it, but if I do, I’ll still believe because I’ve seen the essence of the horse.

That’s where I have a problem with Chelsea. I can’t ever get to the spirit of the side. They remind me alternately of a bunch of mercenaries with no loyalty, except to the self, or a cadre of the worst kind of public service union members who work to rule, to the detriment of their service. There is one exception to this: Didier Drogba, whose gradual transformation from habitual box dropper and tantrum thrower to staunch goal-scoring servant, shines brightly enough to cast many of his team mates demeanours into sharp relief. Drogba, of course, looks like he may have played his last game, and Di Matteo, whose main attribute seems to have been that he is not Andre Villas Boas, is uncertain of his future.

And that sums up why I can’t believe in Chelsea, a club that is run at the top by a plutocrat, and on the pitch by the whims and moods of the dressing room. Di Matteo has done well they say, and why should they not, given the 2012 silverware, but haven’t the recalcitrant squad of AVB’s reign merely consented to play since the caretaker manager came in? On their finest night, instead of being able to fully enjoy the scenes of celebration, a neutral looks at the assemblage and sees a lot of luck, not much soul, and not nearly enough of whatever it is that Frankel and Drogba have got.

Winners with heart & soul

This post was partly inspired by a conversation with a Chelsea fan not long after AVB had departed. A lifelong fan, his disappointed and pained recognition of the pumped-up egos in the Stamford Bridge dressing room was palpable. This morning I imagine he has a well-deserved headache and a hoarse throat and natually all the previous suffering is instantly forgiven. Football fans have strong stomachs, suffering goes with the territory, no joy without pain. That’s all fine and understood, but I can’t quite forget the head-shaking of earlier this year and the expression of the fact that his team wilfully and frequently just chose not to turn up at the game.

Will Frankel save me?

Once upon I time, I followed racing closely: I read all the form, checked all the results, knew the going across the country, who was hot, who was not, and who might have a little bit in hand of the handicapper.

I could never imagine a day when I would no longer do any of the above, but it came, and my life is the poorer for it. On Saturdays, especially Saturdays such as today, I used to smell the expectation in the air. Not just for racing either, for events like West Ham -v- Blackpool and Bayern Munich -v- Chelsea. I even wrote a poem about the Champions League Final once…

Now, these things pass before my eyes and I don’t seem to care. And I want to get back to the place in me that does care, even if it’s only a little bit more than not at all, because that feels more like me. So, if Frankel in the Lockinge in the town of my birth can’t raise the heartbeat a little this afternoon, I may as well give myself the sporting last rites and take up wood turning, or something.

Fingers crossed.

A walk on Hackney Marshes

The current dog had never been to my old regular haunt on the Marsh. I rectified that by being accidentally in London today. It’s a long time ago that me and my old dogs used to walk, or run, with me there and a lot’s changed since then. A new car-park and new wooden-clad changing rooms. Over the White House Bridge, access to the East Marsh is now forbidden; it being carved up between Olympic Park needs and the relocation of the travellers’ site. The old travellers’ site closed when it was swallowed up, along with Waterden Lane, underneath the monoprint of one of the Olympic stadia.

In my mind, my dog Rudi was going to open up the throttle across the marsh. In reality, there were still a cacophony of football matches being played cheek-by-jowl. Each game was notable for the lack of spectators; all the noise came from the pitch. The only thing I could make out was an urgent ‘Carry on, carry on!’. The rest, I imagined, was in Turkish. I sent Fabrice Muamba positive thoughts; the London Chest Hospital that is treating him is only a few miles south of the Marshes. My own ancestor (a baker from Grays) died there in the last century. I hope that Fabrice will be alright, although his career will be over, which is a tragedy in itself. Because of the football, we skirted along the banks of the old River Lee. I was hoping to see a familiar sight: a comorant perched on a thick branch drying its wings. In the end, the final twitching list included: magpies, seagull, chaffinch (probably – even with glasses it’s hard to be definitive with my eyesight lately), mallards, ruddy or teal-type ducks (pretty anyway) and one dipping-in-flight green woodpecker. No cormorants.

How things change. Across the marsh the skyline has moved on. Still the Post Office or Telecom Tower and the Gherkin, now joined by the nearly finished Shard, that I photographed at closer quarters last year. It dwarfs the others, soaring well above the apex of its nearest rival, St Mary Axe. What hasn’t changed on the wide expanse of Hackney Marsh is the cold wind. Yet, the water looks dirtier, the industry heavier. Two new multi-coloured towers for private housing sit on the west bank of the canal part of the Lee. I remember the workers clocking on and off when the site housed the old Lesney Matchbox factory.

Opposite the old flat, more travellers have fetched up like a line of driftwood on the far edge of the cinder pitch. Children play outside the caravans. A dog sniffs where my own used to avidly hunt dead chicken bones. Back on the marsh two Orthodox Jewish men cycle by, chatting. It occurs to me that you never see an Orthodox Jewish woman on a bicycle. There is no-one else about. Where the capital city strains against the Olympic Park there is more space than where the hell I came from. I wonder about the wisdom of progress and walk back to the car carrying a piece of wood. No doubt I make a strange sight. I am used to this. This does not change.

The other thing that had not changed was the police helicopter having its regular Sunday whir over E9. How they afford it, I do not know.

Hackney Marsh: downriver towards the Olympic Park

Read all about it: Man kisses Rottweiler

Southend United

There’s a crowd of over nine thousand people at Roots Hall for the Shrimpers clash against Morecambe yesterday afternoon. I know because I was one of the nine thousand plus, drawn in by the ‘Top of the Table Clash’ billing and the fiver for a ticket.

It’s an engaging match. What the Shrimpers lack in finesse, some of the squad make up for in heart, or workrate. It can be hard to separate the two on first acquaintance. Whatever it is, it only yields a Morecambe own goal equaliser in the second-half (the Southend first-half equaliser already disallowed).

Morecambe FC

Whilst Southend United sport a shrimp in the lower left quarter of their club badge (the upper left carries the three seaxes of the County of Essex, the rest is hopefully self-explanatory), Morecambe entertain a lonely, but giant shrimp on theirs. They are the Red shrimpers, Southend are the Blues.

It’s a slightly edgy Shrimp Stand-Off. Morecambe have a man sent off and there’s a mildly diverting ruckus on the pitch subsequently. The ebb and flow of the play and the attendant side dramas speed up GMT. At one point, some fans remove their shoes and wave them. Is it cobblers I wonder; they stop short of throwing them on the pitch.
I am reminded of the shoes thrown at George Bush in Iraq.

The man behind me starts a ‘BLUE ARMY’ chant intermittently. Sometimes his timing doesn’t match the mood of the home fans and when no-one heeds his battlecry he immediately falls silent, shaking his head softly. When Southend are having a good spell his eyes shine with fervent ardour. His chant is a palpable hunk of burning love for this collective of eleven men, men he might not give the dirt off his sole for as individuals. He hearts his team, but his fellow fans are evidently an often-disappointment.

Blue and white balloons are punched around the West Stand. The ball sails twenty, thirty feet in the air above the box, over and over and over again. It’s not at all like watching performing seals, but yet… We clap them anyway. Cheerleaders perform at half-time in the sunshine facing the East. A mascot does what mascots do, that thing no-one who is not a mascot can relate to – ever. There’s an unseen live lady singer with a dodgy mike and a sense of humour about it who segues into the PA man who is virtually inaudible most of the time. Maybe they sit next to each other, out of sight.

Southend’s sustained attacking efforts in the last quarter of the match at the end furthest away from where I sit, or stand depending on the adrenaline levels in the crowd, yield a rash of corners and free kicks, some nearish misses, but no goals.

Morecambe earn three bookings: two yellows and a red. A long way to come: across the length and breadth of the country for three bookings, a one-nil lead and an own goal equaliser. All this for a fiver.

Even with six extra minutes added on to the 90 minutes, and Morecambe down to ten men, Southend can’t quite find the net. Still only a fiver. It all equals to nada by the final whistle, but the match stands as a complete antithesis to an all-snore-bore draw. It is a draw with bells on.

As the crowd shuffle out, the air is thick with the fags of a thousand men with tattered nerves. The women don’t seem to smoke: their nerves long since shot perhaps. They are holding hands, with kids mainly. One is pushing a wheelchair with a child. Another is bellowing for signatures to be added to a petition. Bring Back Our Lollipop Ladies. I sign. A boy was killed in a hit and run outside school on Monday. She said he was meant to be at the match; his first match. Six years of life snuffed out before it could really get going. Six minutes of extra time. The petition-collector with balls of steel roars at the men to sign; bawls for just a minute of their time. Her own child sits quietly amongst the crush in an old-fashioned pushchair.

Now we are not pressed against each other like transported livestock, there’s a chance to look at other fans for a moment, even through the fug of smoke. One man sets a mean pace in one huge misshapen boot, leaning on crutches. Children stare. Ssshhhhhh, loudly. A sun-broiled shrimper wears a sleeveless vest with a high-vis jacket. Skip Hire is printed on the back. Bare arms reveal his shedding skin. The tattoo of a woman, on what’s left of his right bicep, looks untroubled by the state of her nation.

We are funnelled left up a residential street. A terraced house declares itself The Mad House via a makeshift sign hung on the porch wall. Alongside, another sign warns ‘Twin Rottweilers’. The front-room nets scallop in an upward arc like so many Shrimper balls seen over the box. The television screen faces into the room, and on out of the window. One Rottweiler sits upright watching the Scottish Premier Results Table. It shares its tired grey sofa with a man. Momentarily, the dog turns his black and tan head to his master who gives him a smacker on its furry forehead. Perhaps their team won.

Roots Hall, East Stand & St Mary's, Prittlewell

Southend 1 – Morecambe 1. Crawley win to go top of League 2 in England. The crowd disperses. Southend’s star striker remains on community service for affray (suspended sentence).

Frankel wins his race that should have been at Newmarket, at Ascot. Wales lose the Rugby World Cup semi-final to France by one teeth-gnashing point. There is more, but, ça suffit.

Top of the table clash

The Mile…

Ricahrd Hannon Jr. with Canford Cliffs

Is an absolutely classic distance for a horse race combining, as it does, speed with a touch of stamina.

Today’s Lockinge Stakes at Newbury is being considerately run at 3.45 so, providing they get on with it at Wembley and there’s no pesky added time, the race will be run as they blow the whistle for half-time in the FA Cup Final; perfect for people who can be at neither event.

Truth be told, I would love to see Dick Turpin and Canford Cliffs in the flesh – it is on my list of stuff for this year. Whether it is just those two that battle it out with Twice Over today, as the market has it, or if it involves other good horses that have been overlooked in the hype it is definitely a must-see race.

Canford is the favourite, available at 10/11 on as I write, Dick follows at 10/3 and Twice Over is knocking about at around 15/2, from 8 earlier. Despite the clear market message making Canford the clear favourite because he has that hallmark of quality in his turn of foot that devastates fields as he comes late, because jockey Richard Hughes waxes lyrical about him and because of the esteem his trainer obviously holds the horse in, I would not steam into him. The facts are that, in two out of three meetings, Dick has actually come home ahead of Canford and last season the latter had a couple of races before he hit his undeniably brilliant stride. Dick has had a prep run (win) in a Group 2 at Sandown and although I have heard it said he may prefer a bit more cushioning underfoot than there will be at Newbury today, he gives the impression to me that all ground comes alike.

Twice Over? Well I have been once, twice and thrice through the mill with that animal and you never know how he is going to run. I don’t know if he is a moody sort, or what, but I just cannot trust him entirely. I do back him sometimes, but however much he wins I will never get back the faith that slipped away as he failed to pass Raven’s Pass in the Craven a few years ago. Apart from that, one wonders if the mile is his trip.

So, it all adds up to one thing. I have to back the Turpin and some of that will be money that loves how he runs a tough and honest race. Yes his flashier compadre Canford could come more eye-catchingly late on but Dick Turpin’s runs are all heart and that is how I like it.

Dick Turpin: the heart of a lion according to the trainer's son

Oh Happy Day (Elvis version):Friday 13th

The date has no negative connotations round here because it is my eldest daughter’s birthday today and she has survived at least one of those auspicious Friday birthdays already, in what is now her 9th year on earth.

A rare sight: Arsene skinning teeth

If I wondered yesterday how the time had flown by since Westmead Hawk won his last Greyhound Derby, then it is wonder cubed at the notion that Elodie Alexandra has notched up 9 years. It seems only yesterday Arsenal had won The Double and lamp post climbing was well underway on the parade on Sunday 12th May 2002 in Islington, when I went into labour. Pub in the afternoon, then caught out watching some period drama (on ITV – Aunt Finkywink!).

If I had known how long it would be before Arsene’s lot managed a single, let alone a double of anything again, I might have spent the evening up a lamp post myself.

And on the Friday, two days before that major Sunday, I had walked my last professional dog walk for some time. I say walked, Benji and I had shuffled along a hot pavement to London Fields and then very slowly perambulated across to Broadway Market and then back again. Benji was a great dog; he and I were empatico. A geriatric mongrel rescue from Battersea Dogs Home, it turned out he was on his last legs with me on that walk, and he dropped dead not longer after Elodie arrived. I walked loads of dogs in East London during that pregnancy and to this day I can point out front doors I used to go in to fetch dogs out for a walk. Sometimes I couldn’t tell you what the dog was called or even what it looked like…

Some dogs just don’t have that much presence, but Benji was right up there in that department, albeit in an understated life is hard knocks though innit? kind of way. I liked walking him and Elodie’s birthday always reminds me of him: a dead dog from Battersea Dogs Home. No wonder my Older Than She’s Ever Been daughter (aren’t we all) describes me as a Random, picked from a packet of Randoms.

Anyway, Happy Birthday Elodie xxxxxxxxx Oh, and also to Stevie Wonder (and Richard Madeley…)

Public Crucifixion

I have pretty much have had enough of Arsenals slow death and exit out of various competitions in the last few weeks. The excrutiation on Arsenes face yesterday (on national terrestrial tv) was unbearable to watch.

He looks older to me, and more tortured. He defends his players to the point where he is fast becoming indefensible himself. Even the most die-hard Gooner was demanding a player with a bit of hunger yesterday afternoon. A player who would just try one FFS…

It only remains for me (the non-supporter on the sidelines) to sit and wonder where they would be with an efficient table football back four like in the old days. Once devastating on the break themselves, Arsenal now seem so often pitifully scythed through when the ball is on the other foot.

It is not my business to call for the managers head on a plate, or a spike or anything else. I really hope that Wenger can find a way to inject the Gunners quality that seems lacking. I heard their current playing style described as Pinball Football; that seems a good a way as putting it as any.

In Goal

I am right fed up with these interminable grey skies, even more so since we had some sun yesterday.

This was a hot and windy day last summer on a dog walk. I like the way the ace goalie has taken her jelly shoes off neatly, all ready to stop the ball.