News Blog

And the Football World Title holders are…

7th January 2019

I have spent some time on a modest research exercise to work out who have been – and who now are – the holders of the Football World Title (FWT). I would be very surprised if this hasn’t been done before, though I haven’t previously come across the results of such an exercise.

The concept is the same as that of a world championship title in boxing. We begin with the very first soccer international – Scotland versus England at Hamilton Crescent in Partick in 1872 – and take the winners of that match to have been the inaugural FWT holders. That country retained the title until it was next beaten, at which point the new FWT holder was crowned.

The football historians will have spotted the immediate technical hitch. The first international was a draw: 0-0. However, this simply means that Scotland and England were the joint-FWT holders until their next meeting the following March, when England won 4-2 at the Kennington Oval.

In the long period up to the First World War, the FWT holders were always from the Home Nations. This is not too much of a surprise because, for most of this period, they didn’t play anyone else. England and Scotland battled it out for the honour, with challenges from Wales and Ireland, until the latter defeated Scotland 2-0 in 1903. It was during the 19th century that the FWT was to remain in the same hands for the longest continuous period: Scotland were the holders for the eight years from March 1880.

There was a break in the series between 1914 and 1919, when no soccer internationals were played by the Home Nations. Interestingly, the FWT holders over this hiatus were Ireland, who had defeated England in February 1914 and then drawn with Scotland. Scotland regained the crown in March 1920.

The first overseas challenge for the FWT occurred in May 1909, when Switzerland were put in their place (9-0) by England. It was to be another 22 years – in May 1931 – before the FWT moved outside the British Isles for the first time, when Austria defeated Scotland 5-0. The genie was out of the bottle: the Austrians retained the title over 11 successful defences, scoring another 44 goals in the process, before losing 3-4 to England in December 1932.

Dealing with the outbreak of the Second World War has required an important executive decision to be made by the Board of Governors of the Football World Title – i.e. me. In September 1939, the FWT holders were Italy on the basis, not of their World Cup win in 1938, but their defeat of the previous FWT holders, Yugoslavia, in June 1939.

There were two options. The first – the Peacetime Route – was to have assumed that competition for the FWT was in abeyance until the secession of the War in Europe in May 1945, when Italy were deemed to have resumed the custodianship of the title.

However, this does not allow for the fact that, for many countries, international football continued throughout the War years. After Italy lost 1-3 to Switzerland in November 1939, the possession of the FWT can be traced through the various matches played between the Axis powers (Germany and Italy), the countries within their political orbit (including Hungary and Romania) and neutral countries (Switzerland and Sweden). Following this path – the Wartime Route – the holders of the FWT in May 1945 were Sweden .

The Board of Governors decided that the best solution to this dilemma was to allow for two competing claims to the throne – rather in the way that different boxing authorities might claim that “their” man is the true world champion.

The two Routes remained on different paths for over a decade after the end of the War. The Peacetime Route largely stayed in Europe and included ownership of the FWT by the great Hungarian side between October 1950 and defeat by West Germany in the World Cup Final of 1954, as well as temporary custodianship by smaller football nations such as Belgium and Norway. The only home nation to feature on this Route was Northern Ireland, who briefly held the Title (twice) during the 1958 World Cup thanks to their two victories over Czechoslovakia .

England re-emerged as FWT holders on three occasions via the Wartime Route, initially when they beat Switzerland in 1946. Critically, they had the Title at the time of their infamous defeat by the USA in the World Cup of 1950. Equally significantly, the Americans then lost their next group match to Chile, at which point this version of the FWT became the property of South America until Italy temporarily took back custodianship in 1956.

Although there were World Cup tournaments in 1950 and 1954, the way that the fixtures and the results fell meant that there was no re-unification of the two versions of the FWT until the following tournament in 1958. This occurred when Brazil (the Peacetime Route holders) beat Sweden (the Wartime Route holders) 5-2 in the final.

In the 60 years since re-unification, the chronology of matches has usually (though not always) meant that the World Cup winners have also taken on the mantle of FWT holders. This applied to England in 1966, for example, which means that the Scots’ long-running claim to have been world champions following their win at Wembley in April 1967 can be supported (though they relinquished the FWT the following month by losing to the USSR).

The competition for the FWT has incorporated some famous international soccer matches down the years. In the case of England, the list also includes the “Battle of Highbury” against Italy in 1934 and the Euro 1996 clash with Scotland.

England last held the FWT in June 2000 – for three days between the defeat of Germany and the loss to Romania at that year’s Euros. Scotland ’s most recent custodianship is similarly brief: four days between beating Georgia and losing to Italy in March 2007. In the post-War period, Wales have held the Title once, following their defeat of Italy in June 1988, though they also lost in their first defence (to Holland in a World Cup Qualifier).

The fact that the FWT can be won or lost in one-off matches means that there is an element of democratisation – or is it random quirkiness? – about the process. As a result, whilst the football heavyweights might have dominated its possession, the FWT has not been theirs alone: to return to the boxing analogy, think of James “Buster” Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in 1990. Hence, for example, since the turn of the century, the FWT has been held (briefly) by Angola (in 2004), Turkey (2007) and South Korea (2013) amongst the middle or lower-ranking football nations.

I calculate that, by the end of 2018, there will have been a total of 951 FWT matches (with the Wartime Route, or 926 via the Peacetime Route) dating from that initial Scotland-England clash in 1872. The frequency of the contests has speeded up over time; whereas the first 100 games took over 36 years to complete and the second hundred another 20 years, the most recent century (to 900) took less than 7½ years to be reached. Indeed, due to the combination of the World Cup finals, UEFA Nations League matches and friendlies, 2018 saw the highest number of FWT matches in any single year – 18.

Clearly, the history of the FWT is ripe for analysis by the football statistician. 42 different countries have held the title via the Wartime Route (and 44 through the Peacetime Route). The country with the most successful title defences (via the Wartime Route) is Scotland with 86, all but 5 of which occurred before 1939. Next on the all-time list are England (75) and Brazil (60).

In the 60 years since the re-unification of the alternative Titles, the leaderboard looks somewhat different. Brazil have had 47 successful defences, followed by Spain (43) and Holland (42). England are in 13th place on this list with 14 successful defences and Scotland do not appear at all. The record for the longest run of consecutive successful defences is held by Spain with no fewer than 31 between November 2011 and June 2013.

Further statistical enquiry is no doubt possible: the leading goalscorer, for example, or the player with the most appearances or the team/player with the most red cards. We might be straying into nerdish territory here, however – or perhaps that ship has already sailed.

Finally, the Football World Title holders (at the beginning of 2019) are… the Netherlands .

Last year began with Peru in pole position before their loss to Denmark in the group stage of the World Cup and then the latter’s subsequent defeat (on penalties in the round of the last 16) to Croatia. France ’s 4-2 win over Croatia in the final consolidated the winners of the World Cup with the holders of the Football World Title. However, following four subsequent successful defences, France lost 0-2 to the Netherlands in a Nations League match in November. The Dutch then drew 2-2 with Germany (courtesy of a last minute goal) and so entered the New Year as the Title holders.

Note on data

The main source of data is the excellent online database at, supplemented (in a couple of instances during the 1950s) by the internet records of individual countries and/or tournaments. All full international matches have been considered, including friendlies, with the exception of those played in Olympic Games, when there have restrictions on the eligibility of players or squads. Where matches have been decided by a penalty shoot-out, these have been considered as wins and losses, rather than draws.

The responsibility for any errors is mine. The results presented here are given in good faith.

Tie-less in Vienna

18th December 2018

For many people, this time of year is one of reflection. After wondering where the last 12 months have actually gone, we think about the events that have happened during the year, the places we have been, the people we have met, the joys and sorrows we have experienced…

For some reason, the month of December is also conducive to thinking about previous Decembers. I’m not exactly sure why the month should be singled out in this way, rather than any of the other eleven. However, I was reminded of this a few days ago, when a radio announcer, on introducing the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, remarked that the work’s premiere had taken place one December.

The month features significantly in many of the recollections given in An Ordinary Spectator. For example, the second Tuesday in December was traditionally the date of the Varsity rugby match at Twickenham (though it has had a more flexible scheduling in recent years); had Blues been won for spectating, rather than playing, I would have been awarded half a dozen between 1974 and 1979 and another in 2010.

Similarly, the Boxing Day morning rugby league match at Headingley (in which Leeds RLFC played host to one of their local rivals) was a fixed point at which my father and I could catch up with my Uncle Vic and, in all probability, enjoy a Groundhog Day-like conversation about the matches of previous years over a post-game beer. In the book, I recall the occasion on which the Wakefield Trinity stand-off, David Topliss, shredded the Leeds defence (1976) and the year (1969) when the combined weight of the spectators trying to get into the ground smashed down the large wooden gate on the Kirkstall Road, which had been one of several entrances that were closed, and I was swept through by the surging crowd.

A look through my collection of match programmes confirms other December sporting events. Can it really be 41 years since I stood at the Gelderd End of Elland Road and saw Leeds United beat both ManchesterCity and Everton within a few days of each other? Or 39 years since I watched two young girls jumping up and down near me on the terraces of the Abbey Stadium as The Jam’s Eton Rifles was played over the loudspeakers before a Cambridge United/Queen’s Park Rangers game? Or even 10 years since the Glasgow Warriors narrowly lost to Bath in a Heineken Cup group match at the Firhill Stadium in Partick? On that occasion, I recall, I had a perfect view from my vantage point in the Jackie Hubbard Stand of the visitors’ winger – the 6 ft 7 ins Matt Banahan – scoring a try by leaping high for a cross-kick and catching the ball in two hands above his head before falling over the try line.

The radio announcer did not need to tell me that the Pastoral Symphony had been first performed in the month of December. I already knew that. Ten years ago on Saturday – on 22nd December 2008 – a few days after watching the Glasgow/Bath encounter, I was in Vienna for a concert to mark the 200th anniversary of that initial performance.

On 22nd December 1808, Beethoven directed an Akademie – a concert organised by a composer or musician at his own risk and for his own benefit – at the Theater an der Wien. The programme consisted entirely of works receiving their first public performances: the Sixth Symphony, the aria Ah perfido!, the Gloria movement of the Mass in C Major, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fifth Symphony, the Sanctus and Benedictus movements of the Mass in C Major, a solo piano improvisation, and the Choral Fantasy for piano, choir and orchestra.

200 years later to the day, in the same concert hall, this programme was repeated, with only minor modifications, in a performance by the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna, directed by Bertrand de Billy, and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. The soloists were the German soprano Annette Dasch and – greatly to my surprise, as he had not featured in the original promotion of the concert – the pianist Boris Berezovsky.

As the orchestra launched into the Sixth Symphony (which had also opened the original concert, with the Fifth Symphony coming later in the evening), my mind wrestled with a couple of thoughts. The first was the recognition of the sheer scale of the musical outpourings to which that Viennese audience had been exposed two centuries earlier. The power, beauty, subtlety, romance and drama of these new Beethoven works: all in a single evening. Surely, when hearing the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony for the first time, the hairs must have stood to attention on the back of the audience’s collective neck.

And then the second thought: the reality of the original performance itself. The 1808 concert had been – in the words of the 2008 concert brochure – “eine einzige Katastrophe”. The catalogue of disasters is succinctly captured in John Suchet and Darren Henly’s The Friendly Guide to Beethoven: Vienna’s most proficient musicians had been hired to appear at a competing concert, leaving only those that were second rate at best; the orchestra had had only one rehearsal; the inexperienced soprano fluffed her performance completely; the bird song in the second movement of the Sixth Symphony was greeted by audience laughter; Beethoven had to stop the Choral Fantasy and start again after a mistake by one of the performers; the concert hall was bitterly cold; and the programme, running to 4 hours, tried the patience of performers and audience alike. What disappointment and frustration must the composer have felt, as his reputation and emotions were put through the wringer.

The 2008 performance also ran to just under 4 hours, but this time – I am pleased to report – there was no catastrophe. Bertrand de Billy directed the orchestra with authority and calmness. Annette Dasch’s Ah perfido! was clear and commanding. The Fifth Symphony’s final movement – allegro, presto – was nothing less than thrilling. The excellence of the concert hall’s acoustics was confirmed in the dramatic climax of the Choral Fantasy.

Perhaps inevitably, the star of the show was Boris Berezovsky. His performance was one of impressive contrasts, whether bringing his commanding physical presence to bear on the vibrant passages within both the Choral Fantasy and the Fourth Piano Concerto, or, within the latter’s second movement, revealing a delicate sensitivity to hold both audience and orchestra in rapt attention. I also liked the way in which Berezovsky respected the general conservatism of the occasion – wearing a matching grey suit to complement the dress code of the orchestra and director – whilst also, by appearing tie-less, ensuring that he retained his own informal dynamism.

Beethoven and his premiered works survived that freezing cold night in December 1808, of course. The two symphonies and the piano concerto, in particular, are now core items in the classical repertoire. Accordingly, I thought at the time that it was perhaps slightly surprising that the 2008 concert had not seemed to seek a more “international” presentation. The concert brochure was entirely in German and, during the whole evening, the only concession to English was the standard request to switch off mobile phones before the performance started. There were no speeches or tributes to mark the event.

On reflection, that was probably just my misinterpretation of the occasion. Beethoven’s music does not need introductory speeches. The concert itself was the tribute to that evening – both wonderful and disastrous – of two centuries before. And the internationalisation of the occasion was reflected in the performers – the director born in France, the headline soloists born in Germany and Russia, and the soloists in the Choral Fantasy born in Germany, Poland and Romania.

I return to our seasonal reflections. This year, no doubt, they will guided by the recognition that we have acknowledged some major communal anniversaries: the end of the First World War and the extension of the franchise to (some) women (100 years); the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy (50 years); the Lockerbie bombing (30 years), and so on. We will also have remembered the more private dates of significance: in my case, the death of a great uncle on the day before the Battle of Amiens (100 years); a close relative’s “big” birthday (60 years); a particular wedding anniversary (30 years).

And – inevitably and probably by accident – we will have recalled some of the events which, whilst perhaps trivial in themselves, provide perspective and context when remembering the staging posts of life. Sport plays a role here, along with music or theatre or a thousand other activities: my first Ashes test match at Headingley (50 years); a first visit to Twickenham for a rugby union international (40 years). And a routine rugby match in Partick followed by a concert in Vienna (10 years).

The years pass.

Recreation Park

26th November 2018

On Saturday, I resumed my occasional tour of the football grounds of Scotland . I looked for a match between two sides I had not seen before: Alloa Athletic versus Brechin City in the third round of the William Hill Scottish Cup fitted the bill.

On paper, the home side were the pre-match favourites, as their Championship status placed them a division above their League One visitors. The clubs had bypassed each other at the end of last season, when Alloa were promoted from League One through the play-offs and Brechin ended a torrid year in the Championship, having taken only four points from their 36 games. Some might have expected the latter to free-fall through League One this year, but the ship has been steadied; Brechin have won four league matches and are currently placed in mid-table.

Alloa were elected to the Scottish Football League in 1921. Brechin are relative newcomers, therefore, having first been admitted to the League in 1923 and with their current membership dating from 1954. The furthest progression that either club has made in the Scottish Cup has been to the quarter-final: three times in the case of Alloa, the most recent of which was 30 years ago, and once by Brechin in 2011. But Saturday’s match was of some significance: success in the tie would mean a place in the fourth round draw and the prospect of a lucrative encounter with one of the major clubs from the Scottish Premiership.

Before the match, I took in a mini-tour of Alloa town centre: the choir of Christmas singers at the top of the High Street; the 14th Century Alloa Tower, a superb example of a Scottish tower house, restored in the 1980s (though unfortunately closed for the winter); Tobias Bauchop’s House, the 1695 dwelling of the eponymous architect, in Kirkgate; and a branch of the Dnisi coffee house chain (for my first mince pie of the season). Entry to the ground was £9 for a senior with the excellent match programme a further £2: good value, I think.

Alloa Athletic have played at Recreation Park since 1895. Under a sponsorship deal, the ground has been called the Indodrill Stadium since 2014, but, with due acknowledgement to the benefactors, my – admittedly external – preference is for the former name. It has echoes of other sports grounds that are – or were – the centres of communal attention: the rugby league venues at the Recreation Ground in Whitehaven or the Athletic Grounds at Rochdale Hornets, for example. Indeed, I was struck by the parallels with another rugby ground: Cougar Stadium in Keighley, which I visited in the summer (“A Long Time Between Visits”, 15th July 2018): the main stand is long and narrow, providing a close view of the action on the pitch from the few rows of available seating; there is a busy main road running behind one end of the ground (in this case taking the local traffic to Clackmannan, rather than Bingley); and, looking out to the left, there is the impressive backdrop of the Ochil Hills, beyond which lies Strathallan and the road to Perth (instead of the gentler rising slopes of Rombalds Moor, which separates Airedale from Wharfedale).

The home side’s status of favourites was justified. Their pleasant passing game – orchestrated by the impressive Iain Flannigan in midfield – threatened the Brechin goal several times before Dario Zanatta fired a low shot into the net after half an hour. “Keep it moving” was the persistent instruction from the Alloa manager, Jim Goodwin, on the touchline. Alloa duly kept it moving and two further goals in quick succession around the hour mark sealed a comfortable 3-0 win. Brechin did not give up and their goalkeeper, Conor Brennan, made a couple of brave point-blank saves, but there was little to cheer the handful of supporters who had made the journey down the A90. The game was played in a competitive – but respectful – spirit and was efficiently refereed by Steven Reid.

And so it is Alloa Athletic who will take part in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup. The draw has indeed given them Premiership opposition, although it could have been more generous than an away fixture with St Mirren.

For my part, at the game’s conclusion, I had three-quarters of an hour to wait until the departure of the train that would take me back to Glasgow . Just enough time for another visit to the Dnisi café and my second mince pie of the season.

Another Tough Pool

16th October 2018

Since the Glasgow Warriors returned to Scotstoun as their home ground in 2012, I have been fairly selective in the matches I have attended. Prior to last weekend, the total stood at six games (to add to the five matches I saw there during the Warriors’ temporary residence in 1997). There had been a 50 per cent success rate: victories against the Llanelli Scarlets (in what was then the Guinness PRO12 competition), Bath Rugby and Racing 92 of Paris (at the Kilmarnock FC stadium because the Scotstoun pitch was unfit) and losses against Stade Toulousain and, last season, Leinster and the Scarlets (the latter in the semi final of the Guinness PRO14).

On Sunday, on a sunny autumnal afternoon, Glasgow played their first match – against Saracens FC – in the pool stages of this year’s Heineken Champions Cup. The other teams in the pool are the Cardiff Blues and Lyon and so it is a formidable challenge to win the group and guarantee a place in the quarter-finals. It was the same story last year, when Glasgow were pitched in with Leinster – the competition’s eventual winners – Exeter Chiefs and Montpellier and won only one game out of six. (“A Tough Pool”, 23rd October 2017).

The last time I saw Saracens play was over 10 years ago, in January 2008, when, in another European pool match, they defeated Glasgow 23-16 at Firhill. In An Ordinary Spectator, I noted that, on that occasion, there had been a classic “echo” in my sports spectating: the visitors’ line-up had included Andy Farrell, whom I had seen 15 years earlier as an 18 year-old playing for the Great Britain rugby league team against New Zealand at Headingley.

Sunday’s match also provided a sense of the times passing and the generations moving on. Somewhat quirkily, the fathers of both fly-halves – Adam Hastings and Owen Farrell – had captained British rugby sides on tours of New Zealand: Gavin Hastings led the British Lions on the 1993 tour, whilst Farrell pere was captain of the GB rugby league tourists in 1996.

In the decade since the Firhill meeting, Saracens have been one of the powerhouses of European rugby, winning what is now the Champions Cup twice and being runners-up once; they have also won the English Premiership four times. In 2017, the club provided half a dozen members of the British Lions tour party to New Zealand.

All six of the most recent Lions – including the younger Farrell – took the field on Sunday and, with hindsight, it was perhaps the experience of closing out tight matches that saw Saracens retain the 13-3 lead they had built up at half-time through a scoreless second half. The home side was in the fight throughout, however, roared on by its vociferous support. Perhaps the crucial period was in the frenetic five minutes or so leading up to half-time, when Glasgow were encamped on the visitors’ try-line – aided by four penalty awards given in quick succession by the French referee, Matthieu Reynal – but unable to fashion the critical try. (Another official might have been less tolerant of the frequency of Saracens’ infringements within 10 metres of their line and reached for a yellow card).

As the score suggests, it was a match in which the defences – both of which were well-organised and (to put it mildly) uncompromisingly robust – were on top. However, the sole (Saracens) try was beautifully worked; it followed a quick line-out on the half-way line, the rapid transfer of the ball, a couple of swift changes in the point of attack and the creation of a two-man overlap on the left hand side of the field. Mike Rhodes, who played a fine game in the Saracens back row, touched down.

As ever in these closely contested, physical encounters, I looked for the moments of individual contribution. For the visitors, Alex Goode – in my view, consistently and mysteriously overlooked for the England full-back position over a long period – made a couple of thrillingly committed catches of the high ball, whilst, as expected, Maro Itoje combined his athletic presence in open play with a productive tally at the line-out. On the Glasgow side, the recruitment of the South African prop, Oli Kebble, has clearly enhanced the threat from their set scrum, which had the visitors’ front-row under consistent pressure.

More generally, I also noted that – apart from retreating in the face of an ominous drive straight from the opening kick-off – the Glasgow forwards dealt impressively with the Saracens attempts at the driving maul. This was a marked contrast with last season, when the home side’s vulnerability in this area was ruthlessly exposed by Leinster and the Scarlets, amongst others.

The weekend’s away wins by Saracens and the Cardiff Blues (the latter in Lyon) have obviously put these two sides in joint pole position after the first round of Champions Cup pool matches. Moreover, Glasgow now have two successive away fixtures prior to Lyon visiting Scotstoun in mid-December. All is not yet lost, however, and there might yet be some twists before the quarter-final line-up is known. It is another tough pool.

In the meantime, Glasgow’s success rate for my Scotstoun sojourns has fallen below 50 per cent.

A Good Day in Morley

1st October 2018

Last Saturday, Angela and I were in the Church of the Nazarene in Morley for the Indie Book Fair, part of the 2018 Morley Arts Festival. It was a good day – well-organised, nice venue, friendly people – and I was delighted to give a short reading from An Ordinary Spectator. A few sales added to the warm glow.

Of the 20 or so tables around the inside of the church, mine was one of 4 or 5 non-fiction displays. To complement the Yorkshire murder mysteries, stories for children and poetry collections, there were offerings on living in Africa, coping with a parent’s dementia and (clearly knowing its immediate audience) the pros and cons of independent publishing. Inspection of the products on show – confirmed by chats with the individual authors – left one in no doubt that all the books represented considerable effort and dedication; they were, by turn, imaginative and well-researched and attractively packaged.

The Church is situated at the top end of a large supermarket car-park and so there was some passing interest from the more inquisitive of the Saturday shoppers as well as the obvious support from those with connections to the authors themselves, many of whom were locally based.

I think it was the eclectic nature of our casual engagements during the day that I enjoyed the most: the middle-aged woman whose father had been a keen supporter of the Batley rugby league club; the eight-year boy who showed us a story he had made up, complete with illustration, involving goalkeepers and zombies; the elderly lady, pushing a shopping trolley, who informed us that her cataract operation had been postponed three times; the polite schoolboy who played at prop forward for one of Morley RUFC’s junior teams; the ex-Army man, whose book related his friend’s family stoically coping with their daughter’s Rett Syndrome… We learned some things during the day and we were the better for it.

One man – about my age – spent some time examining copies of An Ordinary Spectator and Still An Ordinary Spectator. He read the back cover blurbs closely and studied the contents pages and glanced at some of the text. He checked the price list I had on display, which included the discount for a double purchase. He then replaced both books and nodded politely and set off on a tour around the Church to look at the other wares. Some time later, on completing his circuit, he returned to my table, smiled gently and duly bought both books. As I signed them for him, I must have given a knowing smile myself; his cautious approach to considering and reflecting on and then completing the purchase was exactly as I would have done.

It was just before 4 o’clock that we dismantled the table and banner and, carrying lighter boxes than when we arrived, made our way back across the car-park. As we did so, I heard the brief – but discernible – roar of a crowd. It turned out that Scatcherd Lane – the home ground of Morley RUFC – was only a couple of streets away and that there was a match in progress.

I looked up the details later. Morley now play in the Northern Division’s North 1 East League: the sixth tier in the hierarchy of English club rugby. On Saturday, they defeated Driffield by 39 points to 7. The young prop forward would have been pleased.

Hier Stehe Ich

22nd September 2018

There is a tenuous sporting connection to this blog, as discussed below.

My sister, Rosie, and I have recently spent several days in the Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) Land of Germany visiting some of the places associated with our family history. Our grandfather, Alfred Edgar Niblett, was born in Osnabrueck in 1888 to an English father, Charles James Niblett, and a German mother, whose maiden name was Anna Karoline Borstelmann.

It was a highly successful trip. I knew that Anna Karoline Borstelmann died in Ludwig Strasse in Osnabrueck in 1938 at the age of 84. The city’s cemetery authority had previously informed me that the street no longer exists, but, in a local bookshop, I came across a map of the Osnabrueck tram system of 1906 on which the location was marked. It is now called Ludwig Baete Strasse (after a 20th Century writer and historian) and is a pleasant tree-lined street of post-Second World War housing.

In the small town of Elze, to the south of Hannover, we visited die Peter und Paul-Kirche, in which Charles and Anna had married in 1873. It was curiously empty on the Sunday lunchtime, apart from two middle-aged women – the organist and a singer – who held a long practice session, perhaps 40 minutes or so, for the time we were there. The melodic sounds resonated down from the balcony and around the clean white walls of the church’s interior.

Outside, I found the statue of Martin Luther, erected in 1883 on the 400th anniversary of his birth, to be both powerful and moving. The inscription read: Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. Amen! “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen!”. This is reputed to have been Luther’s statement to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at the formal hearing in Worms in 1521. (In his monumental A History of Christianity, published in 2009, Diarmid MacCulloch notes that the phrase was only attributed to Luther after his death by the editor of his collected works).

For the following day, we had hired an excellent local guide – Almuth Quehl – to show us around the village of Kirchwalsede and the town of Visselhoevede, including the two beautiful parish churches. At the former, Almuth had arranged for us to see some of the original church records. We started by finding the baptism record of Anna Margreta Marquardt – the mother of Anna Karoline Borstelmann’s father, Johann Friedrich Borstelmann, (and my great (x3) grandmother) – in 1772. I felt the lump in my throat as I saw her name on the page: I just about held it together.

I have previously spent some time examining the comprehensive online database of Lutheran church records in Niedersachsen and was familiar with the long direct family line that goes back through the Marquadt, Lange, Dieckhof and Henke families to the baptism of Harm Henke in 1582. We looked up some of the other original records: the burial of Gert Dieckhof in 1713, the burial of Casten Henke in 1691, and so on.

An unexpected bonus was that the written records contained additional information. Even in the Lutheran church, the type of service was, to some extent, dependent on the amount spent by the worshippers. Hence, the burial of Anna Marie Henke in 1711 was accompanied by “a sermon from the pulpit”. Elsewhere, the causes of death were given: the unfortunate Johann Lange died at the age of 56 three weeks before the Christmas of 1686 when a stone fell on him as he was digging a hole (presumably in the graveyard).

The baptism of Harm Henke in 1582 was, of course, relatively early in the history of the Protestant Church; it had been only two generations earlier that Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Or, to put it another way, it was six years before Philip of Spain sent his Armada into the English Channel. As I looked around the church in Kirchwalsede, its interior neatly decorated with flowers from a recent wedding, I was aware that, even though it had been modified and repaired many times over the centuries, this was still the space in which my great (x9) grandfather had lived and breathed. And it was now, in a different context to Luther, that here I stood.

On the Tuesday, our family researches completed for the time being, Rosie and I did the tourist run in Hannover. The bus tour took us past the Eriebnis Zoo and out to the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen. Towards the end of the route we passed the HDI Arena – the home of the Bundesliga 1 side, Hannover 96 – the street in front of which is called Robert Enke Strasse.

Robert Enke was a goalkeeper who played for Hannover 96 for five years from 2004. He also played for Benfica and Borussia Muenchengladbach, amongst other clubs, and won eight caps for Germany. He took his own life in 2009 at the age of 32. (The excellent A Life Too Short: the Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng, published in 2011, is a detailed and poignant biography).

After the bus tour, Rosie and I briefly went our separate ways and I paid my three euros to take the escalator to the top of the dome of the Neues Rathaus (the New Town Hall) for the views across the city and the surrounding plains. Then, in the late afternoon, I walked back to the football stadium, even though I knew that the gates were closed and access was not possible. (This was an obvious flaw in the schedule I had planned: Hannover 96 are at home to Hoffenheim next Tuesday). As I returned to the hotel, I attempted to marshal the conflicting themes that the overall visit had generated in the back of my mind.

There is an obvious point about continuity and longevity, even amongst the turmoil and destruction that the centuries have brought to this part of the world. The Rathaus in Osnabrueck, heavily damaged in the Second World War, has been repaired to the Late Gothic design of the 1512 original; it was where one of the treaties of the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648 to bring an end to the Thirty Years’ War. In Bad Muender am Deister (where my great (x2) grandmother, Anna Perlasky, was born in 1829), the door of the imposing Steinhof is dated 1721 and names the family who owned the property at that time. Even in the Marktkirche in Hannover, also destroyed in the War and impressively rebuilt in red brick subsequently, the striking triptych at the altar dates from 1480.

The theme of continuity is also evident in the robustness of the family line in Niedersachsen, irrespective of whichever of the various armies – Swedish or Napoleonic or Hannoverian or Prussian – have marched through the territory to claim the land. The local inhabitants – farmers, shepherds, builders, et al – got on with their lives and raised their families and prayed to God and kept going from one generation to the next.

At the same time, I am conscious that there is also transience and fragility. In this respect, although I have mentioned the late goalkeeper of Hannover 96, I doubt that – on reflection – this is a blog about sport at all, not even tenuously. If it is, it is only a reflection of sport’s peripheral place in the much grander scheme of things.

Rather, I might suggest that the blog is principally about connections and relationships and how, against the deep background of the long centuries, there is an inevitable impermanence to our being – whether 32 years for Robert Enke or 56 years for Johann Lange or 84 years for Anna Karoline Borstelmann. We all dip our hand in the flowing stream – some just a finger, others up to the wrist – and, in the rippling of the water, we leave the memories and traces for those that are left behind.

Geographical Shifts

4th September 2018

“We went to the terraces that were situated in front of the Lowfields Road stand… I was immediately struck by how green the grass was and how boldly the whitewash and the goalmouth stood out…

…Once the match kicked off, I noticed that the spectators around me did not seem to have much patience with the Leeds [United] team’s efforts. They were not interested in fancy routines or intricate manoeuvres. They wanted instant results. Specifically, they wanted the ball to be deposited in the Charlton net and, when Leeds eventually put it there, it triggered a paroxysm of unbridled celebration from everyone on the terrace. It was the only goal of the game, but it was sufficient to meet the demands of the local supporters”.

[An Ordinary Spectator, pp 103-104]

I was relatively late coming to live soccer. My father had given me my rugby league baptism (Hunslet vs Whitehaven) at the age of 6 in 1961 and taken me to watch Yorkshire play cricket (in the Roses match at Headingley) in 1966, but it was not until 1968 that I caught up with Leeds United at Elland Road . September 4th 1968 to be exact – 50 years ago today.

Dad had no real interest in soccer – and was certainly not a Leeds United supporter – and so it was with some friends after school that I attended a relatively low-key match: a second round Football League Cup tie with Charlton Athletic.

I described my initial impressions of the occasion in An Ordinary Spectator. My main interest was in seeing the individual players and, unlike the major clubs’ approach to the equivalent tournament today, there was little doubt that Leeds would field a near full-strength side. I duly made a mental note of the famous names – Bremner, Charlton, Hunter et al – that I was seeing for the first time, live and in the flesh.

In the book, I also recognised how the match programme (price one shilling) now registered as a historical record of the times. In particular, the Club Notes included a piece on how the arrangements for the second leg of Leeds’s Inter Cities Fairs Cup final – the away tie with Ferencvaros of Hungary – which had been held over from the previous season, were somewhat uncertain because of “the Czecho-Slovakia-Russian political events of the last few weeks”. (The Russian tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia a fortnight earlier). The club was using all the available means “to ascertain the situation, by telephone and cable”.

I will return to the Leeds/Charlton match programme below.

If I were to summarise my approach to watching soccer over half a century, I would describe it as opportunistic. I have not had the pleasure (or burden, delete as appropriate) of fervently supporting a particular side and so most of the games I have attended have been from a genuinely neutral perspective.

The venues have been determined by a variety of factors: where I happened to have been living (Cambridge United at the Abbey Stadium, Wimbledon at Plough Lane ) or visiting ( Ipswich Town at Portman Road ) or just passing through ( Leicester City at Filbert Street on the way back to Cambridge after playing cricket in Loughborough). There have also been the occasional sojourns on foreign holidays (for home fixtures of Bayern Munich, Hertha Berlin and Espanol in the respective Olympic Stadiums of Munich, Berlin and Barcelona ). These days, I have an eclectic approach to day-trips from my Milngavie base, mainly to Scottish venues (Dumbarton, Stirling Albion, Albion Rovers), but sometimes further afield (Carlisle, Newcastle, Berwick).

Looking back at the Leeds/Charlton match, one point that is of interest is the status of the two teams at the time. Leeds United were the current holders of the League Cup – their first major trophy – having defeated Arsenal at Wembley the previous Spring. The side would go on to lift the Football League Championship for the first time that season. Charlton Athletic came into the match as leaders of the old Second Division, though they were to finish third and outside the promotion places. In 2018-19, fifty years on, Leeds have been outside the top division for 15 years, whilst Charlton are now in League 1 (or League Division Three in oldspeak).

More generally, half a century of promotion and relegation has produced its inevitable churn in the hierarchy of English football. Of the 22 teams in the 1968-69 First Division, 13 are in the 20-side Premier League of 2018-19, 7 in the Championship and two (Sunderland and Coventry City) in League 1. Further down the pyramid, the fates of the teams in the Third Division of 1968-69 vary from those now in the Premier League (AFC Bournemouth, Brighton and Hove Albion, Watford) to the 6 clubs that are no longer in the Football League at all.

The drop-outs are particularly revealing, I think, because their composition is an echo of the broader economic shifts in the country as a whole over the last five decades. Of the 92 teams in the Football League in 1968-69, 15 are no longer in these top four divisions and, of these, 12 were situated above the Wash-Severn line. Their replacements include only 6 sides from this large region, the remainder being found largely in the more affluent South East.

We can stay with this theme. Yorkshire has lost three clubs from the Football League of 50 years ago – Bradford Park Avenue, Halifax Town and York City – without replacement, whilst several of the other departures have been from geographically remote locations (from the rest of the League’s perspective) such as Barrow, Workington, Darlington and Torquay. (The accession of Yeovil Town slightly redresses this point).

I make these observations without comment, as it could be argued that the “old” Football League was top-heavy with sides in the North of England and some sort of regional re-balancing was needed. Moreover, the arrangements for promotion and relegation to the League have been based on a meritocracy for many years, rather than the old system of election or re-election by the other member clubs.

Finally, back to the match programme for Leeds United vs Charlton Athletic in 1968. I mentioned in An Ordinary Spectator that stapled within it was the “Official Journal of the Football League” – the Football League Review – which I assumed to have been attached to all clubs’ programmes in a given week. It looked worthy and dull and, at the time, I didn’t read it.

I did look at this for this blog, however, and some of its contents are not a pleasant read. Quite apart from examples of casual sexism, there is one reference – in the “Opinion” column of Walter Pilkington of the Lancashire Evening Post – to the population of Bradford which is frankly grotesque.

I mention this not to make an obvious point about the social mores of a past age and the differences in what was/is considered acceptable then and now. Rather, it is to illustrate how difficult it is – from the perspective of today – for me to make sense of the occasion of my first exposure to live soccer 50 years ago.

On the one hand, much remains absolutely crystal clear, as if I had watched Leeds United play Charlton Athletic yesterday: the state of the pitch, having to continually jerk my head to get a line of sight from the shallow terrace, the passion of the crowd…

And yet, in other respects, it does seem such a long time ago.